STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Penn State University braced for potentially crippling sanctions against its football program for covering up former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children, hours after it took down its statue of coach Joe Paterno for his role in the scandal.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association said on Sunday it would announce punitive measures against the school on Monday, and could levy the so-called death penalty that would eliminate an entire season or more for the scandal-scarred football program.
Penn State’s storied football team is undergoing a reckoning after long serving as the university’s cash cow, not only for ticket and merchandise sales but for the goodwill it instilled in deep-pocketed donors and alumnae.
In June, Sandusky was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years. This month, former FBI director Louis Freeh released a report that criticized Paterno for his role in protecting Sandusky, and the school’s image, at the expense of Sandusky’s young victims.
The NCAA appeared to be moving with unprecedented speed, and to be relying on Freeh’s findings instead of conducting its own investigation.
“It means this is being handled independent of enforcement/infractions processes,” said Josephine Potuto, a University of Nebraska constitutional law professor and former chair of the NCAA infractions committee.
Possible penalties range from the so-called “death penalty” -- the suspension of the football program for at least a year -- to less severe action, like barring the team from college bowl appearances and withdrawing scholarships, experts said.
Attorney Alan Milstein said the Penn State case differed from other cases where the NCAA imposed disciplinary measures, in that the college faces potential criminal and civil penalties in addition to any punishment the NCAA might hand down.
“They’re paying fairly dearly in addition to these sanctions for the violations,” Milstein said.
Penn State could face hundreds of millions of dollars in civil liabilities, legal experts have said, and it has invited them to negotiate settlements.
The university is also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for possible violations of the Clery Act, which requires colleges to collect and report daily and annual crime statistics and issue timely warnings.
“A SOURCE OF DIVISION”
Penn State leaders said the 7-foot (2.1-metre) statue of Paterno, who died of lung cancer in January at age 85, had become “a source of division” at the school.
“I now believe that, contrary to its original intention, Coach Paterno’s statue has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing in our university and beyond,” Penn State President Rodney Erickson said in a statement.
“I believe that, were it to remain, the statue will be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been the victims of child abuse,” Erickson said.
The move to remove the statue won widespread praise, including from the White House.
“The president believes ‘it was the right decision’ for Penn State to remove the statue of Joe Paterno from outside the football stadium,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
But the Paterno family objected to the move, saying Penn State’s focus should be on uncovering the “complete truth.”
“Tearing down the statue of Joe Paterno does not serve the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s horrible crimes or help heal the Penn State community,” the family said in a statement.
The scandal rocked the university and its powerful football program and sparked a national conversation about child predation.
Freeh’s report, commissioned by the university’s board of trustees and released on July 12, said Paterno and other high-ranking school officials covered up Sandusky’s actions for years while demonstrating a callous disregard for the abuse victims.
On Tuesday, a small plane flew a banner around Penn State’s campus that read, “Take the statue down or we will.”
The statue hails Paterno as the coach with the most victories in major U.S. college football history.
Paterno was fired by Penn State’s board in November, days after Sandusky was arrested for the abuse.
Sandusky, 68, awaits sentencing. He faces up to 373 years in prison.
In 2001, graduate assistant Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky assaulting a boy in the showers at the Penn State athletic complex. McQueary told Paterno, who told Athletic Director Tim Curley, who subsequently talked with then-university Vice President Gary Schultz and university President Graham Spanier. No one went to the police.
“Paterno, Curley and McQueary were obligated to report the 2001 Sandusky incident to the University Police Department for inclusion in Clery Act statistics and for determining whether a timely warning should be issued to the University community. No record exists of such a report,” the Freeh report said.
Spanier was fired in November at the same time as Paterno. Curley and Schultz have been charged with perjury for allegedly lying to a grand jury investigating Sandusky’s crimes and for failing to report suspected child abuse. They have pleaded not guilty.
Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York and Greg McCune in Chicago; Editing by Andrew Stern and Eric Walsh