Three members of the Penn State Board of Trustees made headlines yesterday as trustees Keith Masser, Keith Eckel, and Paul Silvis made their way through a Washington media tour that included meetings with the USA Today and Washington Post editorial boards. Notably, a USA Today article called "Penn State leaders don't endorse Sandusky coverup findings" made waves for comments from Board of Trustees chairman Masser.
In the article, Masser says that Freeh's conclusions about Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz amounted to "speculation" and that the courts would decide the validity of the conclusions.
Here's a video of the interview with Masser from USA Today:
Masser has been ridiculed by some at Penn State for his comments about Freeh's conclusions in the past. He infamously stated when the Board of Trustees fired Spanier on Nov. 9 it was "because we didn't have confidence in his ability to lead us through this crisis," Masser said. "We had no idea (at the time) he would be involved in a cover-up."
He also said previously that it appeared like "top administration officials and top athletic officials were involved in making the decision to not inform the proper authorities."
In truth, Masser and the board have never fully accepted the Freeh report and its contents in an official capacity. Rather, most trustees tend to redirect questions about Freeh's dark conclusions to tout the fact that Penn State has implemented almost all of the Freeh report recommendations and has improved its governance thanks to the report.
Masser also praised Joe Paterno in the interview with USA Today, saying that he believes his legacy will turn out to be a positive one.
"His legacy should be his priority of academics in his superior coaching abilities and making sure that his student athletes were educated and focused on education," Masser said. "I think that as time goes his story will be written appropriately — to acknowledge him for his successes and great achievements he brought to Penn State."
"He was a great coach. I admired him...His name is on our library and we admire his prioritization of academics...We believe that there will be a time to consider further recognition of Joe Paterno."
Keith Eckel, another university trustee, said he was "surprised that...Freeh came to conclusions as far as responsibility," although he backpedaled slightly in comments after the USA Today article went live.
"Comments were made as far as the conclusions Judge Freeh reached as far as the culpability of individuals. We didn't, nor did we ever, feel that that was our responsibility," Eckel told the Patriot-News. "We're not challenging Judge Freeh's conclusions. We're only indicating that those conclusions have no role in our implementation of Freeh's recommendations."
"I don't know that USA Today properly put our comments in perspective," he said to the Post-Gazette. "Here is exactly what I meant: And that is simply that all of the [Freeh] recommendations are being absolutely followed, but the conclusions as to personal responsibility were not issues that the board dealt with...Conclusions as far as the individuals are concerned are certainly left to the courts."
Not everyone was so accepting of the board members' apparent change of heart. Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a advocacy organization highly-critical of Penn State's administration and Board of Trustees, released a statement with the sentiment of 'too little, too late.'
"We must be in the Twilight Zone," the statement read. "Exactly one year after the release of the Freeh Report, we now hear from University Trustees that they don't accept its unsupported — but damning — conclusions. Mr. Masser appears to have forgotten that President Erickson explicitly accepted the Freeh Report on behalf of Penn State when he signed the Consent Decree with the NCAA.
"As alumni, we read the entire report upon its July 2012 release, and we immediately urged the Trustees to repudiate it due to its incompleteness and subjectivity. No new information has surfaced since then. The only thing that has changed is the extreme damage caused to Penn State: the severe NCAA sanctions, enormous financial costs, and reputational damage that has had negative consequences for everyone associated with the university.
"This latest PR tour of trustee doublespeak rings hollow and contradictory. The trustees' year-long silence on the Freeh conclusions reeks of disengagement, fiduciary irresponsibility and poor leadership. Where was the trustees' defense of Penn State when it was needed most?"
The Paterno family also released a statement through spokesman Dan McGinn welcoming the change of heart and calling on the NCAA to revisit its actions.
"The comments today by members of the Penn State Board of Trustees that they reject the key findings of the Freeh report is a critically important development," the statement read. "Over the past year, the fundamental failures of the report have been well documented. What Freeh represented a year ago as solid evidence is now widely understood to be unsupported speculative conclusions, rather than hard facts.
"It is a step forward that members of the Board are publicly backing away from Freeh's central allegations. Unfortunately, the NCAA based their unprecedented penalties against Penn State entirely on the Freeh report. With the credibility of the report eroding on a daily basis, it is imperative that the NCAA revisit their actions."
Outspoken trustee Anthony Lubrano, who has championed the anti-Freeh movement on the board from the beginning, welcomed Masser's comments.
"This is what I've been waiting for and I give Keith Masser a lot of credit," Lubrano said to the Patriot-News. "He's been listening carefully to us. I don't think it means that we're actually going to review and debate the Freeh Report, but the fact that he is acknowledging those conclusions are on shaky ground is a good thing."
The trustees also spoke about the possibility of asking the NCAA to revisit the sanctions during their interviews Tuesday. Bill O'Brien met with the board at last week's meeting and Masser has previously admitted that revisiting the NCAA sanctions was something the board may want to pursue eventually.
"Those scholarships fell off the face of the earth," Masser said. "They didn't get redistributed. To me, there are students with athletic ability who could have gotten a college education, who are not. Why is the NCAA punishing potential students? It's just not the right way to provide punishment."
"There isn't a person in the Penn State system who wouldn't like to see the sanctions be relaxed and get back to a more level playing field," board vice president Paul Silvis said to USA Today.
The trustees did not offer a timetable for when the sanctions might be redressed.