John M. O’Donnell is an Assistant Professor in the School of Hospitality Management at The Pennsylvania State University. John is also a 1967 graduate of The Pennsylvania State University.

I am getting sick and tired of listening to people say that Penn State has put football ahead of everything else and that this is part of the Penn State culture. That is HORSE MANURE!

As a Penn State faculty member, I have had athletes from practically every varsity sport in my classes and have never been asked (or has it been “suggested’) that I make the slightest concession to anyone because they were a football player, or a member of any other varsity team. I cannot imagine Joe Paterno ever making such a request (nor can I imagine most faculty members acceding to such a request if they had ever received one – academic integrity is a pretty important issue at Penn State!).

On Monday, the same day that Mark Emmert of the NCAA was issuing sanctions and issuing his sanctimonious decree that Penn State should reform its culture and put academics ahead of football, the NCAA released the latest statistics on graduation rates of football players at large NCAA schools. Penn State is #1, and so far ahead academically of the next closest school in terms of graduating football players (and basketball players, by the way), including showing virtually no difference between white and black athletes, which the report noted was extremely rare, that

Emmert’s comments appear ludicrous. Maybe the NCAA would like to hold Bobby Bowden (the new leader in NCAA football wins) and Florida State up as their paragon of academic virtue. Bobby Bowden was a great coach and is maybe a great person, but FSU did not recruit athletes on the basis of academic excellence and FSU was lucky to EVER have a football player or basketball player graduate.

The claims of the Freeh report, the NCAA, ESPN, and others claiming to describe the “culture” at Penn State ignore, in no particular order of priority,

(1) the recent (2011) Wall Street Journal poll ranking Penn State #1 among employers nationally in terms of where they feel they find the highest quality college graduates as employees,
(2) Penn State’s ranking as the # 1 government research institution in the United States,
(3) the previously mentioned ranking of # 1 in graduation rate among all student athletes, specifically football players,
(4) a 2011 or 2012 ranking by a Cambridge University study ranking Penn State among the top 100 academic institutions IN THE WORLD, and on and on and on.

It is long past time that Rodney Erickson STOP accepting criticism of the Penn State culture as being entirely driven by the football program. That is simply crap!

Rodney Erickson appears to have adopted the “rope-a-dope” strategy of just absorbing punch after punch, hoping that the media, the NCAA, and the other anti-PSU crowd will wear themselves out. I find his endless concessions, and acceptance of these pronouncements about our “football culture,” to be a personal assault on my integrity and an assault on the integrity of everyone who is part of the Penn State family — faculty, administrators (perhaps other than Rodney Erickson), staff, and students. Everyone concedes that child abuse is a horrific crime. We don’t need to be lectured on that.

One guy did it, and it is possible that a number of people (including, among others, Penn State administrators, various police agencies, child welfare agencies, various school administrators in Lock Haven and elsewhere, Second Mile administrators and board members, state prosecutors, etc.) screwed up in not following up as aggressively as maybe they should have (Whether this is actually the case depends a lot on what and who you believe. I think the Freeh report leaves a lot to be desired in terms of completeness, accuracy, and objectivity on this point.). The media has found something as appealing as Greek tragedy in this story and they will not let go. Someone needs to stand up and tell them that their description of the Penn State culture is a travesty, which it is! Erickson, and whoever he’s listening to, don’t seem to be the folks to do this.

From all indications so far, including reactions from newly elected trustees Anthony Lubrano and Adam Taliaferro, it appears that Erickson signed the NCAA consent decree without involvement or approval of the Board of Trustees. I don’t believe that he has the unilateral authority to commit the University to this level of liability. If this is the case, he should probably be fired as quickly as the Board fired Graham Spanier. He has committed the University to what is estimated to be something in the range of $72 million dollars in penalties, loss of continuing revenue from its football program (the least of our worries), and – most seriously – undisputed damage to the reputation of the University which could be forever in recovering. The damage he has done, in my humble opinion, is far worse than anything Graham Spanier ever came close to doing.

Sorry. Enough of my rant. This has been keeping me up at night thinking about the injustices done to so many people associated with Penn State. I don’t want to lessen or condone the wrongs done by Jerry Sandusky, but the level of attacks on Penn State associated with this atrocity, and the damage done to the University, its students, its faculty, its alumni, and ultimately to the world community served by this great academic institution, are simply unwarranted.

28 thoughts on “From the Professor

  1. I was a Penn State undergraduate between 1971-1976 and I have been a professor at Penn State for the past 30 years, teaching mostly at a commonwealth campus, but occasionally at University Park. I grew up in State College and I have been living in State College the past 20 years. My own perceptions and feelings are almost identical to John M. O’Donnell’s.


  2. Professor O’Donnell:

    Most who never competed or lived in a world where they did not have to fight don’t understand if you let people take unjustified shots at you without fighting back, you finally get knocked out or you lose the desire to fight back. This is only the beginning. It is not sound thinking to believe you just accept this punishment and move beyond all. It’s not going away. More allegations will come up. When the trials start for the others, it all starts again.

    In between you have the following. “Eyewitness: Sandusky, Penn State booster sexually abused children on private plane in Pa.” AND “Penn State receives accreditation warning.” It doesn’t matter that the witness is not credible in the former or that Penn State has outstanding academic accomplishments in the latter. You become a punching bag. Finally, for them, they can beat up on Penn State and there is no one strong enough to stand up. They go back to old reports of how Penn State correctly stated they did it the right way-and mock them.

    With respect, you know Penn State better than I, but I know more about what goes on at big time football factories. It is astounding how players can participate four years at Division I schools and not have the ability to read simple sentences. It is too sick to be a joke.

    As for Penn State folks in charge-I can’t call it leadership-who was General Counsel for Penn State? Who made the decision to agree to Freeh terms? Who in their right mind would give anyone that control and accept those conditions? You tell Freeh to hit the road. You control all as you would with any client.

    I am sick for Penn State because I know too much about the NCAA fraud and hypocritical bozos who are money whores. If I could do a brain flush on this subject now and all I know, I would do it. I can’t so I want to fight. I want to file suit, to challenge them and attack their very existence. If I lost-had the suit thrown out-so what?

    With discovery you learn about the conduct of the NCAA-what it has covered up and with whom-together with the favoritism it has shown. Merely because you agree to rules of an organization should not mean you agree to unbridled power and punishment. The integrity of those who punished so many is in no way close to all those who were punished.


  3. Hear hear professor,
    It is about time someone who understands PSU stands up and sets the record straight,
    My husband and I are PSU grads and it seems to us that this whole thing was handled poorly from the beginning to now.
    That is the problem and we can not understand why that was the case. What that awful man did was inexcusable but the actions of the NCAA do not make those horrendous situations better for the victims or anyone. The people who are and were responsible for this mess must be punished, but to punish and destroy a whole university community, future students, and people who have nothing to do with this situation makes no sense at all, and for the board to allow this is ludicrous. We agree with your assessment of the board and current President and are appalled that the board does not take actions to protect the integrity and the future of the Pennsylvania State University.


  4. John M O’Donnell & hostirad you may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. You may have standing as employees of the University. Along with willing Board members like McCombie, Lubrano and Myers there may be enough legally recognized interested parties to initiate legal action to challenge the consent decree. Alumni can join in but I believe do not have an interest that the courts will recognize. We can harness the energy of the accumulated frustration and reverse this abomination of governance. We need a few legal minds to specify who is needed to sign on so our voices can be heard in court, then we need as many of those qualified as potentially injured parties to step forward. Joel Myers identified faculty, staff, students, community businesses and alumni. Penn State will not only stand for protecting children, Penn Staters will also be recognized as having enough self respect to demand and get fair treatment and due process. Make this TYRANNY FALL!


  5. I am a Penn State alum, ’82g ’84g, and I am grateful for Professor O’Donnell’s remarks. I could not agree with him more.


    1. I would like to add that while I share a great many of the sentiments included in Professor O’Donnell’s email, I believe Dr. Erickson acted in what he felt were the best long-term interests of Penn State and the local community. I do not know if I would’ve made a different decision than he did when presented with the NCAA’s fait accompli, but I do know D. Erickson was under immense pressure with little in the way of good options seemingly available to him. I wish to note that I was fortunate to have several classses with Dr. Erickson when I was a graduate student at State some years ago, and always benefitted from his advice and counsel. He is a dedicated educator, scholar, and gentleman, and someone of the highest integrity who loves Penn State. Indeed, he spent practicaly his entire career at State, and as many people may not know, he was Dean of the Graduate School, VP of Research, and Provost at Penn State for many years, playing a critical role in guiding the tremendous rise in the the university’s academic reputation across the world. There is much about how this entire affair has been handled that I detest, especially at the level of the BOT, but Dr. Erickson has my deep gratitude and respect for stepping into the breach when Penn State needed him.


      1. David — we appreciate your first hand input. While I do not know Dr. Erickson personally, I have heard from many friends who do know and have worked with him, and they all praise him as being a good man and a loyal Penn Stater. I’m afraid, however, that he is more of a conciliator than a negotiator. Many of us believe that he should have responded to Emmert’s ultimatum as the beginning of a negotiation, not the end. Someone who was more used to swimming with sharks would have “if that is your position, tell the executive committee, we will see you in court. We are willing to spend whatever time and money necessary to fight this. If, however, you want to discuss a reasonable way forward we will listen and respond.” The next time Emmert came to the table his tone and attitude would have been different and Penn State would be in a better place today.

        You can be a good man and a bad poker player.

        Gary Levitt


        1. It is classic Peter Principle. Gary nailed it. When Paterno was relieved Bradly was made interim head coach. The BoT or the University said that the position was too important to make Bradly the permanent head coach without a nation wide search. When Spanier resigned Erickson was made interim, then a few days later he was made the permanent President because the same people said it was too important to have an ‘interim’ running the University. Great man, wrong for the job.


        2. Gary- I just noticed your reply to my comment. I appreciate the point you are making, and under the circumstances, your poker analogy has great appeal. I ask you, though, to consider that given the tremendous stakes involved-playing a game of chicken with a big part of the economic life of the university, if not the entire local economy-a very strong case can be made that it was most prudent to wait until another day to wage war against the NCAA. Consider also that Dr. Erickson in all likelihood had a great deal of input-input he would be hard-pressed to ignore- from the university’s legal counsel, probably including outside advisors more familiar with the context of this situation vis a vis the NCAA. In that regard, if the recent BOT conference call is any indication, that counsel would have told him that the NCAA was very serious, would indeed act immediately on its threat, and perhaps more importantly, that precedent (i.e. Tarkanian matter) gave sufficient reason to believe that Penn State’s legal case would not prevail at the federal level; indeed, the federal court may not have even granted a preliminary injunction preventing the NCAA from implementing the “death penalty”. While I share the view of a great many of my fellow alums that the NCAA acted far outside any rational bounds in this entire affair-tantamount to blackmail-and should be rebuked heavily for it, it can be reasonably argued that the prudent thing to do under the circumstances was to protect the ability of the team to play, pending more deliberative consideration of what legal steps the University, or others, could take next. I say this realizing that the first impediment against the University’s future actions might very well be the BOT itself, which has shown nothing if not a consistent ability to mismanage the entire situation from the outset. The whole notion of “moving on”, when so much injustice has been done, leaves me speechless, and the desire to hit back, and hit back hard, is a very palpable emotion. But just as there are four quarters to a football game, this was only the opening quarter. No matter how angry I and a great many others might be over the situation, given a decision of such magnitude and the vast number of uncertainties involved, I can’t fault Dr. Erickson for deciding to wait until he had a stronger hand to play. It occurs to me that the ace in that hand may well be found to be the Freeh Report itself.


          1. You may be right, of course, but as a negotiator most of my professional life I understood well the axiom, “you can always come back and accept a bad deal if you really can’t get anything better.”. The economic impact on the BigTen and the NCAA itself would have been enormous. Scheduling is committed to years in advance. How many schools would have wanted to replace a sold-out date with Penn State for a second or third tier draw? Do you really think Emmert could have sold that to his executive committee?

            As for the Ace in the hole, it seems Penn State’s position has only deteriorated since signing the consent decree which many see as a confirmation of the Freeh Report.

            If Graham Spanier and/or Tim Curley/Gary Schultz implicate Erickson as having been in the loop on the Sandusky matter (apparently a possibility) some will say the reason he wanted a quick, no-questions asked resolution is that he wanted to avoid being personally tainted. I hope that is not true. But I continue to believe he was thrust into a role that he was not prepared or suited for.


            1. I have not heard about a loop involving Dr. Erickson, so I have no way to respond to that. I guess we will see. But I find the notion that he acted in such a way as to somehow reduce his own exposure to the issues involved, in essence to cover them up or make them go away, to be hard to fathom, given the tremendous amount of media scruitiny to every facet of the case. No such cover-up could ever be expected to stand over time, and thus I tend to want to also explore other explanations for actions that are in question. Regarding the opportunity to come back and accept a bad deal when you cannot get something better, I think Penn State’s position would have deteriorated no matter what decsision was made because the university had lost (with great assistance from the BOT) complete ability to control the narrative. I suppose we can reasonably argue that Dr. Erickson might have had more room to maneuver, but that would be true only if an array of options were on the table, and I sense this was handled much like a DA offers a plea bargin for one minute, and the clock was ticking. As for the NCAA, from all I can gather I believe that they were quite prepared to exact the death penalty if for no other reason that wanting to achieve some higher moral, and ultimately political, stature that has so far alluded them, and this tragedy gave them the very opportunity to do so, the truth and Joe’s legacy be damned. That I find completely reprehensible, and worth whatever fight is necessary to correct the tremendous wrong done to Penn State, no matter how long it takes.


      2. I appreciate your perspective, David, and also your civil exchange with Gary from ps4rs. It is a welcome relief to see people reasoning with each other instead of screaming that they are absolutely certain about the truth and anyone who disagrees with them is either immoral or an idiot.

        I also know Rod Erickson personally, and we have mutual respect for each other. He trusted me enough to chair the University Promotion and Tenure Committee one year and to serve on a committee charged with reviewing all programs across the commonwealth campus system to increase operating efficiency and academic quality. My view of Dr. Erickson is that he not only cares deeply about the viability of Penn State, but that he also represents the best of classic midwestern virtues (he is from Minnesota): up-at-dawn, hard-working, no-nonsense, and practical.

        Not existing in Dr. Erickson’s shoes, I would not want to second-guess his decisions for a moment. My life experience tells me that there is always, always, more to any story than what is released publicly. At the same time, I do wonder about several aspects of signing the deal with the NCAA.

        First of all, I wonder about the quality of advice given to him by legal counsel, given the behavior of legal counsel to Penn State in 1998, 2001, and 2011. I suppose Dr. Erickson had little choice here–the alternative was to get no input from legal counsel at all.

        Second, the description of the NCAA limited-time offer that must be kept secret from the full BoT sounds very, very odd for a couple of reasons. The fact that it was a limited-time offer reminds me of those advertisement scams that pressure people into buying a bad product before the “special offer” expires. Does the NCAA really operate like that? Also, given that the Freeh report criticized the BoT for lack of oversight and the NCAA based their sanctions on the Freeh report, why would the NCAA not want the full BoT to be involved in a decision with such a major impact on the university? Is the BoT to be involved in only issues of lesser importance?

        Finally, the NCAA sanctions clearly state that the penalties imposed on the football program are *not* to be allowed to affect the other sports programs at Penn State. But if the NCAA cares so deeply about all of the other sports and intramurals at Penn State (all of which, except basketball, depend totally on football revenues), how could they possibly impose a four-year death penalty on football, which would have decimated all of our other sports programs for four years? Was the four-year death penalty a real threat?

        John A. Johnson, ’76, Professor of Psychology


        1. Thank you, Professor Johnson. It is instructive to note that as draconian as the sanctions are, neither the BigTen Conference or any Atherton University is in any way penalized financially or even inconvenienced. You would think that short of the “death penalty” the most obvious sanction would be to ban Penn State football from television. Yet this was apparently never discussed. A television ban would directly affect the B10 Network and reduce revenue to every school in the conference. The $60 million fine, reduction in scholarships, opening the Penn State roster to raid by other schools, the ban on post-season play, and the vacating of wins was an easy vote for the executive committee. It cost them nothing and probably improved their own competitive advantage for years to come. Does anyone really believe this group would have taken a direct financial hit to make a moral statement?

          Really. Really?


          1. Gary, you raise some very interesting points, particularly the impact a death penalty against PSU would have had on the Big 10 and other schools. Perhaps it was all a ruse. You may well be right that that the sanctions were what the NCAA was after all along. There is a lot that remains to be understood about what happened. The stakes were huge no matter how you look at it. I for one think with horrific evidence of child abuse now proven and the damning nature of the Freeh Report in the background, Emmert felt he had all the room in the world to ride to the mountaintop and establish the moral supremecy of the NCAA in practically all things collegiate, with little opposition possible from anyone, including the other member schools. Even with the loss of revenue a death penalty would have created for Penn State and others, either way he really had nothing to lose. That is the essence of a perfect negotiating position.


        2. Thank you John for your reply. I think most people who have joined here are trying very hard to find some way to address all of this, if only to explain it to themselves. The discourse has indeed been civil, and thought-provoking. I think you have characterized Dr. Erickson perfectly; your observations about him resonate closely with why I have great difficulty in believing he failed Penn State in some fundamental way. We can reasonably argue over whether he should have taken one direction over another, or if holding to a “tougher” negotiating stance would have produced a better result for Penn State. I personally doubt it. But many smart and reasonable people here feel very strongly about what happened, and I cannot fault any of their feelings on the matter. As you point out, none of us really know much about what happened, only what little of the story that has made its way into the press, and we have no assurance that much, if any, of the reporting is accurate (ESPN’s behavior alone would make any honest journalist blanch I would think).

          I share your questions about the quality of legal advice given to Dr. Erickson, especially with regard to the consent decree, and also with respect to the contorted process that seems to have occurred. It is simply unreasonable to think he had the luxury to sift through a sea of attorneys until he found that advice which suited his designs. Rather, my guess is he had his in-house legal counsel immediately available to him, plus that of the BOT and perhaps several outside counselors with subject matter expertise brought in to better define a very treacherous and unchartered landscape. It surely would be considered executive malfeasance for him to have ignored that advice, especially given what was at risk.

          There are conflicting reports and opinions about what authority the NCAA had, or should have, and what avenues the University had available to it, or thought it had. For me, the whole episode regarding the sanctions is very reminiscent of that fateful chain of events when the PA State Police Commissioner said in a news conference that Joe had failed in his moral responsibility to the victims. Ignoring the sanctimonious nature of that statement, it was, to me, also a very politically-driven one specifically designed to light a firestorm, which it surely did. And likewise, the press conference by Louis Freeh, in which the world received his imposing, highly moralistic and damning rebuke of all things Penn State set off the firestorm all over again, a conflagration the NCAA used to justify collapsing its own procedures to reach further than it ever did before. I heard a report in the media, I have no idea as to its veracity, that the Freeh team was in contact with the NCAA before the report was released. If this is true, it lines up nicely with how the NCAA, specifically Emmert, could find the justification to act as they did, in effect blackmailing Penn State with a “take it or die” set of alternatives.

          To me, there is a great deal in this affair that has everything to do with wanting to grab for political gain or position. Corbett sits at one end of that spectrum, and Emmert on the other. I’d like to examine the factors behind Emmert’s motivations in all of this, for his press conference was nothing if not a startling display of arrogance and moral self-righteousness (the script repeating itself again…). The sheer weight of the Freeh condemnation, and the BOT’s meek and tacit acceptance of it, certainly gave license to Emmert, which would help explain where the “special one-time offer” behavior came from. Indeed, it speaks of a man who thinks he has his prey perfectly cornered, with nothing to worry about. Whereas before release of the Freeh report the political angle likely looked murky to the NCAA, Emmert now had perfect cover to act with impunity to set himself up as the great savior; certainly the media wasn’t looking at anything but what it decided to be the shame of a child-abuse enabling institution. Emmert simply stepped up and coronated himself as the new sheriff in town. With the specter of child abuse lingering in the background, voices in opposition were and remain for now effectively muted (did any of the other major universities complain publically about the massive NCAA power grab? To my knowledge they did not). At that point, the king was made, all rules go out the window, and contradictions and exceptions to established policy become the new norm. Bully for Emmert, at least for now, but I guess he, much like Corbett, will have a great deal to answer for in the chronicles of this tragedy if -if- the process of digging into it continues apace. That is where groups likes this one can play a very important role in helping to right the great wrongs done to the University, Joe, indeed everyone who is a part of or cares about Penn State.


  6. Well said, and you express exactly what we Penn Staters feel about the disingenuous NCAA sanctions and the actions of President Erikson and the majority of the members of the BOT.


  7. Professor O’Donnell:

    Thank you for having the courage to stand up and say what many of us feel. I, for one, want to barf every time I hear the word “culture” anymore. For the Penn State Board to sit back, accept the Freeh report and not put up a fight is a major travesty (and yes, I’ve read the entire Freeh report).

    I’m here to support anyone who’s willing to fight the band of sheep on our Board.


  8. To David: It has been substantiated that Emmert DID NOT have the authority to give PSU the death penalty without due process. This shoots holes in Erickson’s failed attempt to “save” the football program. Professor O’Donnell spoke for many in this media, ncaa, court of public opinion and BOT fiasco.


    1. Bob, I hear you, but I’m not sure that the substantiation you speak of is any more than wishful thinking. From what I’ve been able to gather from a variety of sources, the University’s legal advisors felt that the NCAA, as a private voluntary organization operating under color of its executive committee, did indeed have the ability to act as it did and that the concept of due process as we normally regard it would not operate in this case. We can certainly argue that point, but I cannot fault Dr. Erickson for listening to his legal advisors and deciding to not risk finding out immediately if the worst case would in fact, come true. I still have issues with the consent decree side of this, though I don’t have enough information to feel I can judge the situation any better today than I could two weeks ago. Much of this is uncharterred ground, with a great deal uncertainty, so I can imagine how hard it would have been to decide to take the NCAA head on at that pinacle moment. But I do believe that by allowing the team to play, the door still remains open for suits to be brought against the NCAA by affected parties, if not the University itself. I firmly believe those battles can and will be won by those that love Penn State.


  9. His letter should be required reading for the BoT before they vote on any decision to approve Erickson’s action in particular his authority to sign the consebt decree


  10. There is no doubt there is an enormous amount of energy (both personal & financial) out there just waiting for leadership.
    Where is that person or group that’s ready to lead the effort to reverse these injustices?


  11. Professor O’Donnell — well said. I will be at PSU recruiting for Marriott in early October and I look forward to meeting you.

    Beth Berry
    ’86 Lib


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