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Erickson: NCAA 'Wanted Blood' After Sandusky Scandal

by on December 11, 2014 12:36 PM

For the first time, former Penn State President Rodney Erickson has opened up about the signing of the controversial consent decree with the NCAA.

Though the consent decree allowed the NCAA to impose sweeping sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, Erickson makes one thing clear: the leadership of the university feared things could have ended up much worse for Penn State.

"[NCAA President Mark Emmert] said that he had read the Freeh Report from beginning to end twice over the weekend... He said that everyone viewed this as the worst scandal ever in sports," Erickson says. "And it was the worst case of lack of institutional control that they could imagine."

Erickson revealed these and many other details over the course of nearly eight hours of questioning in his deposition hearing for Pennsylvania State Sen. Jake Corman's and Treasurer Rob McCord's lawsuit against the NCAA. When Emmert called Erickson shortly after the release of the Freeh report on July 12, 2012, he reportedly uttered a phrase that seems to have had a profound impact on Erickson: "They want blood."

Emmert was referring to the members of the NCAA executive committee, which is made of numerous university presidents from across the country. When they read the damning conclusions of former FBI director Louis Freeh, Emmert reportedly told Erickson they were livid. The Freeh report concluded that top Penn State administrators (including Erickson's predecessor Graham Spanier) had repeatedly hid knowledge of Jerry Sandusky's child sex abuse from the public. 

"He said the presidents want blood. He said they would like to shut your [football] program down for multiple years; [he had] never seen them so angry and upset," Erickson says, and returns to the phrase "they want blood" several more times throughout the deposition.

Erickson says he had "a general awareness" that the NCAA planned to sanction Penn State as early as late 2011, shortly after the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal broke. But he says it wasn't until his conversation with Emmert after the release of the Freeh report that the threat of sanctions began to take shape.

Erickson says Emmert presented him with essentially two options: the so-called "death penalty" and the total loss of the football program, or a package of severe sanctions against the university. Whatever the outcome would be, Emmert reportedly told Erickson that the NCAA executive committee would make the decision, rather than using the traditional process of going through the NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI).

"[Emmert] thought the only way to head this off would be to craft a package of very, very severe sanctions," Erickson says. "That he might -- he emphasized 'might' --  be willing to get the board to look favorably upon, but that time was of the essence and confidentiality was of the essence."

Penn State ultimately agreed to numerous sanctions, including severe reductions in football scholarships, a ban on post-season bowl games, the loss of all football wins between 1998 and 2012 and a $60 million fine. The scholarships and bowl eligibility have since been restored, but the other sanctions remain in effect.

Erickson says he had an understanding that the issue of sanctions was "on a need-to-know basis," leading him to keep the full Penn State Board of Trustees out of the decision making process. He says the difficulty of getting all 32 trustees in one place at one time was a consideration, but Erickson was more worried that details would leak to the public -- causing the NCAA to pull what had been presented as the only hope Penn State had for saving its football program.

During the time between his phone call with Emmert and signing the consent decree, Erickson would talk to the executive committee of the Board of Trustees and numerous university attorneys. He says they considered several other options, including fighting the sanctions by going through the COI and self-imposing sanctions on the football program. Those options were ultimately discounted, as no one knew how long the NCAA COI would take to make a decision on sanctions, and Penn State officials had no idea how to sanction their own program.

"...it's very difficult to have a viable program when you got something of that nature hanging over your head. How do you self-impose sanctions? How do we recruit student athletes and coaching staff when you've got a situation like this that may stretch on for several years through various litigations and appeals?" Erickson says.

"It would have been a very ominous cloud hanging over the program."

Erickson also talked to a handful of other people, including Gov. Tom Corbett, who reportedly told Erickson to accept the sanctions as the lesser of two evils. Bill O'Brien -- who at that time had not yet committed as Penn State's new head football coach -- stressed to Erickson how important being able to play football was to the university.

Corman told Erickson he was worried about how the loss of the football program would impact the local economy and offered to help in any way he could, which Erickson declined.

Corman and McCord are suing the NCAA in an attempt to keep that $60 million fine in Pennsylvania, which led to Erickon's deposition testimony. The validity of the consent decree has become a focus of the Corman-McCord lawsuit, with a January trial date set on the issue.

Erickson says that he also reviewed his authority to sign the consent decree with Penn State's legal counsel, who informed him he was within his rights to make such a decision according to Penn State's bylaws. Erickson later deflects questions about his thoughts on claims from Corman and others that the NCAA lacked the authority to sanction Penn State, saying "people are entitled to their own opinions about things."

Erickson voices some of his own opinions, including some misgivings he has about the Freeh Report. He says he had no reason to doubt Freeh's qualifications as an investigator, and adds that he had no reason to believe the NCAA influenced the outcome of the report -- but he disagrees with one of Freeh's major conclusions. The Freeh report found that Penn State had overemphasized the importance of the football program, ultimately allowing children to be abused in order to protect it.

"I have always said that Judge Freeh's conclusions about the culture of the entire university were not founded," Erickson says. "The issues about the culture that may have arisen were extrapolated to the entire university, which I thought was inaccurate and unfortunate."

A transcript of the entire deposition hearing can be read in the two documents below.

Rodney Erickson Deposition Part One

Rodney Erickson Deposition Part Two

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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