The NCAA will investigate whether Penn State lacked institutional control in failing to report an alleged sexual assault perpetrated by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on campus.
After shying away from the situation for nearly two weeks, NCAA president Mark Emmert alerted Penn State president Rodney Erickson to the investigation in a letter Thursday. The association and the school released the letter to the public Friday.
At issue is whether any Penn State official violated NCAA bylaws in failing to report Mr. Sandusky's alleged crimes. In his letter, Mr. Emmert cites three specific bylaws the university might have violated. The most salient is Bylaw 19.01.2, which identifies athletic administrators and coaches as "teachers of young people" who should "do more than avoid improper conduct or questionable acts. Their own moral values must be so certain and positive that those younger and more pliable will be influenced by a fine example."
"Those who exhibit this behavior are meeting the ethical expectations of the NCAA membership," Mr. Emmert wrote. "Those who do not, fail us all."
Mr. Emmert asked Mr. Erickson to answer four questions relating to the conduct of individuals associated with the university and the school's ability to monitor that conduct. Mr. Emmert asked for a response by Dec. 16, less than a month away.
The university's athletic department released a statement a short time later, stating they would cooperate with the NCAA.
"Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics intends to fully cooperate with the NCAA during its inquiry, and understands that this is a preliminary step toward understanding what happened as well as how to prevent anything similar from happening in the future," the statement said. "We understand and believe in the importance of following both the letter and spirit of the NCAA rules and guidelines, and will continue to reiterate that to our coaches, student-athletes and athletic administrators."
A lack of institutional control charge, if proven, could carry a variety of penalties for a school, including the loss of scholarships, recruiting restrictions, bans on TV appearances and postseason play and the "death penalty," which bans schools from all intercollegiate athletic competition. The school's previously unblemished record on NCAA infractions will be a factor if the NCAA doles out punishment.
The NCAA is typically more lenient on non-habitual offenders, but it also is more aggressive when schools do not self-report violations.
"It will be important for Penn State to cooperate fully and provide any assistance possible to the NCAA," Mr. Erickson said in a statement. "The University's and NCAA's interests are perfectly aligned in identifying what went wrong and how to prevent anything similar from happening again."
The NCAA said Mr. Erickson had pledged full cooperation.
Cases take months before investigators produce a notice of allegations to the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. After a hearing process, the committee rules on the allegations and assesses penalties, though schools have the right to appeal.
The NCAA might have a difficult time investigating Penn State for a number of reasons, including their stated desire to avoid criminal investigations. Unlike other organizations investigating these charges, the NCAA does not have the power of subpoena. Since this infractions case involves alleged criminal activity, the association will have an even more difficult time getting witnesses to speak.
Additionally, the people with the most direct knowledge of the case do not work for Penn State. Mr. Sandusky retired in 1999. Coach Joe Paterno was fired last week. Athletic director Tim Curley went on paid administrative leave last week, and the board of trustees is still mulling his fate. All three have hired attorneys, who likely will advise against speaking to the NCAA. Additionally, none has much need to cooperate with the NCAA as none is likely to work in college athletics again.
Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who allegedly witnessed Mr. Sandusky sexually assault a child, has been placed on administrative leave. He might be the most willing to cooperate with the NCAA, especially if he hopes to one day coach again.
Some schools require departing coaches and administrators to cooperate with NCAA investigators as part of the terms of a separation agreement.
In the letter, Mr. Emmert called the allegations a black eye for Penn State and any school that plays sports on the intercollegiate level.
"It is critical that each campus and the NCAA as an Association re-examine how we constrain or encourage behaviors that lift up young people rather than making them victims," Mr. Emmert wrote.
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com , 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino.