Penn State’s Life Sentence: Beyond the NCAA Sanctions

Today’s NCAA punishments, while crippling, are only the beginning. Kevin Cirilli on the battle brewing off the field—impending legal action against ousted president Graham Spanier. Plus, Twitter reacts to the news.

Hell hath no fury like a football fan scorned. This morning in Indianapolis, the NCAA stripped Penn State’s wins from 1998 through 2011, bombed it with a $60 million fine, yanked its scholarships, banned it from bowl games for four years, and opened the floodgates for current players to transfer. It wasn’t the death penalty. It was a life sentence. (Read the NCAA’s full statement here.)

“Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert.

He didn’t have the leadership to do it himself, but interim university president Rodney Erickson accepted the penalties for the university, though many Penn Staters did not. Students literally held their breath while watching the NCAA press conference on television.

Too strong? Not strong enough? The debate is raging. “If Catholics can still go to church, Penn Staters should still be able to go to football games,” one diehard told me. “They’re punishing the wrong people,” another said. Instead of blaming the coach, these fans are blaming the refs.

It’s not the game I’m interested in. Let’s take a break from talking about seasons and a statue and talk about legal statutes. That’s the game I’m interested in. As the former campus editor of Penn State’s Daily Collegian and a journalist who has watched this story unfold since November, I couldn’t help but think of ousted president Graham Spanier, who has yet to face a single charge.

Under Pennsylvania law, a person must report abuse if “in the course of employment [he or she] comes into contact with children, and the person has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse.” So what gives?

“We punish people for committing a crime and usually not for failing to report it,” legal analyst Paul Callan told me. “Still, there are a number of things Graham Spanier should be worried about.” Particularly those damning emails that the Freeh report uncovered that say he not only knew about accusations against Sandusky, but withheld details from authorities.

Take Mike McQueary, who this morning became Penn State’s most recent quarterback to win a football game. In 2001 he was a graduate assistant coach who says he saw “something sexual” between Sandusky and a boy in an on-campus locker-room shower. He didn’t go to police. He went to his father, who called their doctor, who told him to go to Paterno, who waited a few days before telling Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, who then apparently told Spanier.

Like a game of whisper down the lane, as the story passed through the chain of command, it’s increasingly difficult for authorities to prove what Spanier knew and when. “When these statutes were drafted, they included parents, teachers, doctors—but who else? Is a university president included in that? Once you get out of the circle, it gets harder and harder to convict,” Callan said.

Which is probably why Spanier has remained tight-lipped since the fallout. The day the scandal broke, he released a statement supporting Schultz and Curley. Either he knew he was going down or was bizarrely disillusioned. This is, after all, a man who now wants us to believe that he’s working for the government, as he leaked to reporters, on national defense issues. And he could get off in criminal court.

Not the civil suits. Spanier, Paterno, and Penn State could pay a combined total near $100 million, estimated Callan, who represented the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson when O.J. Simpson was sued after his infamous acquittal of murder in criminal court. Callan said his prediction is based on the precedent set in Boston, when the Catholic Church lost $85 million in its child sex-abuse cover-up.

Joel Feller, an attorney for some of the young men Sandusky abused, told me this morning his clients are “still digesting” this morning’s sanctions. “They’re living with the horrific effects of being abused and knowing their abuse could have and should have been prevented.”

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These days, you can rot in hell for covering up a pedophile and not spend a day in prison. How’s that for separation of church and state?