Why Did The NCAA Rely On The Freeh Report To Punish Penn State?

That the NCAA relied heavily on the report produced by former FBI director Louis Freeh and his team to level the Penn State football program earlier this week is hardly a shock or a secret — the report, as NCAA president Mark Emmert said, was “vastly more involved and thorough than any investigation we’ve ever conducted.”

But the Freeh Report, commissioned by Penn State’s Board of Trustees, was never meant to investigate whether the football program violated NCAA rules, according to a source from Freeh’s team reached by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Freeh Report, the source said, was an investigation into “how Penn State operated, not how they worked within the NCAA’s system,” and it “was not meant to be used as the sole piece, or the large piece, of the NCAA’s decision-making.” Instead, the source said, the report “was meant to be a mechanism to help Penn State move forward. To be used otherwise creates an obstacle to the institution changing.”

Looking through the Freeh Report, it’s hard to dispute that point. The report is a legal investigation meant to lead to changes that prevent another such institutional failure, and it includes specific recommended changes to Penn State’s administrative and academic culture to achieve that goal. In no way does it examine Penn State’s role within NCAA bylaws or whether it might have broken NCAA rules.

Given that, it seems a thorough investigation into whether, and how, Penn State violated NCAA rules should have been in order, especially before the program was hit with massive fines, bowl bans, and scholarship reductions. Some sort of investigation was begun — Emmert delivered questions to Penn State in November, and the university was reportedly set to deliver its formal response around the time Emmert handed down the sanctions — but it was abruptly aborted, a fact that always seemed odd, especially when Emmert struggled to name specific bylaws Penn State had violated. The reasoning the NCAA uses to justify going forth with the sanctions before it conducted an investigation is shoddy, at best, as Emmert said the Freeh Report provided all the information he and the organization’s Executive Committee needed to know.

The fact is, there are multiple investigations going on at Penn State. To produce the Freeh Report, investigators combed through millions of emails and conducted a thorough investigation. The Department of Education is now carrying out its own investigation into whether Penn State violated federal law by not reporting crimes committed on campus, and deep investigations will continue to take place involving the federal charges facing two former Penn State officials. And the NCAA has even reserved the right to conduct a more complete investigation and bring more punishments to the table for individuals once the legal process is completed.

For whatever reason, though, the only organization to have punished Penn State thus far did not conduct its own investigation and instead relied on a document we now know was used outside its stated purpose. That’s a step that, frankly, does absolutely nothing to dispel the notion that the NCAA has overstepped its legal bounds to hand down a punishment because it felt it had to do something and because, with football season just weeks away, doing nothing might have seemed like an abdication of its duties, even if that something ignored its own role in the creation and fostering of the culture it says it wants to change.