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MSU Officials: Penn State sanctions are wake-up call

 

Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum

Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum

 

 

Matthew Stevens

 

 

STARKVILLE -- The leadership at Mississippi State University watched with one critical thought Monday as the NCAA delivered one of the most unique and strongest penalties to Penn State University  

 

The question MSU President Mark Keenum and other school leaders across the country wondered is could something like this happen on our campus? 

 

MSU officials said Monday they're confident there is a structure in place that will prevent one person or athletic program from dictating how the university is run. 

 

"Mississippi State University has very effective mechanisms in place to enable individuals to report activities they feel may be inappropriate," Keenum said in a written statement to The Dispatch. "The university has maintained long-established channels of communication to process reports of questionable activities." 

 

For its part covering up and protecting former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who in June was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys in 15 years, Penn State agreed to unprecedented penalties, including $60-million fine, a four-year ban from postseason play, and a loss of 10 football scholarships per year in that span. 

 

"Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people," NCAA President Mark Emmert said Monday morning in a statement. Emmert said the penalties reflect "the magnitude of these terrible acts" and also "ensure Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry." 

 

Keenum said all NCAA members should take Emmert's statement seriously. 

 

"The NCAA has sent a very powerful message about priorities and responsibilities with its far-reaching set of sanctions," Keenum said. "The severity of the penalties and the strong comments by NCAA President Mark Emmert clearly serve notice on NCAA member institutions that never again can such as a situation be allowed to happen." 

 

Keenum was one of 50 leaders invited to a retreat that produced five priorities for the agenda of college athletics: Re-write the NCAA rulebook to reduce the number of rules and to focus on the most significant issues, to improve academic standards for student-athletes and to tie a team's academic performance to participation in all NCAA championships, to revamp the NCAA penalty structure and to increase the levels of violations, to re-focus the NCAA enforcement staff to concentrate on major infractions, and to strengthen the academic requirements for incoming freshmen and student-athletes who transfer from two-year institutions. 

 

Penn State President Graham Spanier also attended that retreat. 

 

"There is an unwavering determination to change a number of things about intercollegiate athletics today," Spanier said in 2011. "Presidents are fed up with the rule breaking that is out there. We are determined to elevate the academic standards. We are concerned about the rapidly escalating costs of running intercollegiate athletics programs." 

 

Spanier was forced to resign as Penn State president last November. Earlier this month, former FBI Director Louis Freeh's 267-page report on the Sandusky scandal asserted Paterno, who died of lung cancer in January at age 85, and senior Penn State officials decided to protect Sandusky to avoid damaging the image of the school and its football program. Damaging emails unearthed by Freeh and his team of lawyers and ex-law enforcement officials show the extent to which Paterno, Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and senior vice president Gary Schultz fretted over what to do about Sandusky. Ultimately, they did nothing -- and their inaction allowed the retired defensive coordinator to continue molesting boys, the report found. 

 

Spanier insisted Monday in a statement through his attorney to The Associated Press he wouldn't have ignored child sexual-abuse complaints as the school's top administrator because he was beaten repeatedly as a child. 

 

Spanier said in a June 23 letter to Penn State's Board of Trustees he wouldn't have turned "a blind eye" to the victims of convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky because of his history of abuse. 

 

"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 ... would have knowingly turned a blind eye to any report of child abuse or predatory sexual acts directed at children," Spanier wrote. 

 

MSU Director of Compliance Bracky Brett said the actions of the leaders at Penn State have illustrated to schools across the country that coaches, administrators or departments can't compromise a school's value system. 

 

"This case is a wake-up call for everybody, but it's definitely a wake-up call for presidents and chancellors of all of our institutions throughout the country because this points directly to the NCAA's constitutional mandate to operate with a high level of integrity," Brett said. "I think this situation has and will continue to generate conversations on this campus and campuses all over the country to make sure we've got everything in place to monitor to make sure something like this doesn't happen." 

 

In addition to the sanctions levied against Penn State and its football program, the NCAA ruled current Penn State football players or incoming players are free to transfer and to compete at other schools. Brett told The 

 

Dispatch on Monday his office is prepared to work with any Penn State players who opt to transfer to MSU. 

 

Since Keenum's arrival at MSU in 2009, the school hasn't had an athletic program placed on probation. He also has presided over enrollment growth on the academic side, which includes students with the highest ACT average of any university in the state of Mississippi. 

 

Keenum feels there is a line of communication among MSU officials that creates a safe environment to report any unethical behavior -- like the Sandusky situation at Penn State -- that could put the school at risk. 

 

"This telephone and Internet-based reporting system is a powerful tool to assist the university in addressing questions of fraud, abuse, unethical behavior, misconduct and other activity in violation of university policy or state or federal law," Keenum said. "I have high confidence these current policies, including the ethics line, provide the framework for identifying and correcting inappropriate activities and allow the university to continue to maintain the highest standards of ethical conduct in the execution of our responsibilities in service to the state of Mississippi." 

 

MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin worked in media relations at Baylor University in 2003 when the NCAA handed down numerous violations to the school's men's basketball program after the 2003 murder of men's basketball player Patrick Dennehy. His teammate, Carlton Dotson pled guilty to the murder and was sentenced to a 35-year prison term. 

 

Shortly after Dennehy's disappearance, the school and the NCAA began investigations into multiple allegations, ranging from drug use among players to improper payments to players by the coaching staff. Baylor self-imposed punishments, which the NCAA augmented to include extended probation for the school through 2010, the elimination of one year of non-conference play, and a 10-year show-cause penalty on former coach Dave Bliss. The Bears didn't have another winning season until 2008. At the time, it was one of the harshest penalties imposed on a Division I program that didn't include a death penalty. 

 

While Stricklin declined to comment Monday about the Penn State sanctions, Brett said he is confident Stricklin and Keenum will continue to lead discussions to make sure MSU is prepared to handle any scandal that breaks involving an athletic program. 

 

"The leadership at a major university didn't handle a matter with the level of integrity they should have," Brett said. "I think it calls for everybody to step back and evaluate what they're doing and how they are conducting business on a daily basis in terms of monitoring." 

 

Even though the NCAA admitted Monday it circumvented its usual series of investigations and hearings in an attempt to deliver a ruling in a timely manner, Brett doesn't feel the NCAA will handle what he considers "normal infraction cases" in the same way. 

 

"Now, the (NCAA) staff has already gone through looking into a reorganization and it's more procedural and process orientated to make sure to process is transparent as possible but still maintaining the integrity of an investigation," Brett said.

 

 

 

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