Penn State aftermath: Fired former president denies knowing of abuse

Even as Penn State tried to digest the severe NCAA sanctions imposed on its athletic program, the school's former president, Graham Spanier, says he 'hadn't the slightest inkling' about the systematic sexual abuse.

By , Staff writer

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    In this 2007 photo, Penn State University president Graham Spanier speaks during a news conference in Hershey, Pa. Spanier says he wouldn't have ignored child sexual-abuse complaints as Penn State's president because he was beaten repeatedly as a child.
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Former Penn State University President Graham Spanier says an investigative report released early this month is inaccurate regarding his role in the alleged cover-up of a sexual molestation scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach.

In a letter sent to university trustees and published by ESPN Tuesday, Mr. Spanier says he “hadn’t the slightest inkling” about the systematic abuse by Mr. Sandusky until the release of a grand jury report last year that revealed systematic abuse by Sandusky over a 15-year period.

“Never would I stand by for a moment to allow a child predator to hurt children. I am personally outraged that any such abusive acts could have occurred in or around Penn State and have considerable pain that it could perhaps have been ended had we known more sooner,” he writes.

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An internal investigative report prepared by former FBI Director Louis Freeh concluded that the decades of hero worship associated with Penn State’s football program resulted in top university officials – including Mr. Spanier and famed football coach Joe Paterno – looking the other way when it became apparent that Sandusky, an associate football coach, was molesting minors in athletic department lock room showers.

Also Tuesday, Spanier attorney Peter Vaira told the Associated Press that Spanier himself was a victim of physical abuse by his father, who broke his nose on several occasions.

In his letter to the trustees, Spanier referenced his early professional life in private practice, writing that it “is unfathomable and illogical to think that a respected family sociologist and family therapist, someone who personally experienced massive and persistent abuse as a child, someone who devoted a significant portion of his career to the welfare of children and youth … would have knowingly turned a blind eye to any report of child abuse or predatory sexual acts directed at children.”

Spanier’s letter to the trustees came to light as Penn State tried to come to grips with the punishment meted out to the school’s athletic program Monday by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Following the release of the Freeh report, the NCAA imposed a $60 million fine on the school, temporarily banned the football team from bowl games, limited the number of athletic scholarships that could be awarded, and erased the team’s wins under Mr. Paterno, whose once glorious legacy has been damaged beyond repair.

The Freeh report found that Spanier “failed his duties as president” for not “promptly and fully advising the Board of Trustees about the 1998 and 2001 child sexual abuse allegations against Sandusky and the subsequent Grand Jury investigation of him.”

The report said that Spanier failed to report the abuse because he feared negative publicity. He was fired last November.

In his letter, Spanier said he had “no recollection of any conversations” related to e-mails the Freeh report says were copied to him relating to a 1998 incident. Regarding a 2001 incident, in which assistant football coach Mike McQueary reported witnessing Sandusky molesting a minor in the locker room showers, Spanier said the descriptions related to him did not reference any “abusive or sexual behavior” and he was told that “the witness wasn’t sure what he saw, since it was around a corner.”

He continued to say the report was “egregious in its incomplete and inaccurate reporting” of his discussions last year with university trustees following the release of the grand jury report.

Sandusky was convicted last month of 45 counts related to the sexual molestation of 10 minors, all male, over a 15-year period. He is currently awaiting sentencing.

Penn State’s famed athletic program, meanwhile, will likely be damaged by the sanctions levied against it Monday by the NCAA, but some sports analysts say the program ultimately is expected to survive since the school was spared the NCAA’s harshest punishment, the so-called “death penalty,” which would have shut down the football program for at least a year.

“They’re going to survive but they’re not going to thrive for quite awhile,” says Ray Sauer, a sports economist at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. “The scholarship limitation is a very serious handicap for them. Basically, it relegates them to among the also-rans in their conference.”

Already there are signs of financial blowback to Monday’s sanctions: State Farm Insurance announced Tuesday it was pulling 2012 sponsorship of the football program. “It’s a result of all the information that has been going on with Penn State over the last year,” said spokeswoman Arlene Lester.

But, while more sponsorship money will likely exit, experts say because Penn State’s endowment is nearing $2 billion, the university’s financial burden will not run deep. Despite the scandal, Penn State received more than $208 million in donations for the fiscal year that ended June 30, the second-highest donation total in university history.

Those numbers amplify the point made by some sports analysts who say the university deserved even harsher punishment for the scandal and who maintain that the entire saga makes the case that long-term changes are needed in collegiate sports.

“I don’t think the action will have very much affect on the larger problem, which is the incredible influence that big time college sport now has on university governance in general,” says Allen Sack, a professor in the sports management program at the University of New Haven. “The irony here is that the NCAA actually created this system that contributed to [the cover-up] that were taking place at the school.”

The gap in spending on academic and athletic programs have widened in recent years says the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Between 2005-09, for example, academic spending per student increased 22% to $13,471 while athletic spending per athlete increased 50% to $91,053.

Universities generate revenue from cash donations, ticket sales, television contracts, and local sponsorships.

The Knight Commission estimates that athletic budgets for most top university athletic programs will exceed $250 million by 2020, which executive director Amy Perko says is untenable compared to the small student athlete population it services, sometimes numbering around 600.

“Those revenues need to be distributed in a way that strengthens the core mission of the university. If all it has done is reward the football team that made the playoff then the system itself is contributing to a culture where teams and schools may place performance above the educational values,” Ms. Perko says.

A recent Knight report recommends more transparency in disclosing spending on athletic versus academic programs at universities.

Perko also says a new playoff system for collegiate football announced in late June presents an opportunity for the NCAA Board of Directors to legislate how to distribute revenues. She applauded a recent eligibility ruling for postseason championship play that requires at least 50 percent of team players are on track to graduate.

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