17 Feathers for Penn State Board


In 1902, noted British author A. E. W. Mason penned a gripping tale of cowardice and redemption that has since become a classic in the cannon of Western literature. Mason’s book tells the late 19th century wartime adventure story of four close friends and fellow soldiers who are about to embark on a British military expedition to quell an uprising in the Sudan. But on the eve of their departure, one of them suddenly resigns his commission, refusing to go to war and refusing to explain his reasons. He is branded a coward by his three comrades, who each bestow upon him the ultimate ignominious disgrace of an officer and a gentleman: they each present him with a white feather, symbolizing cowardice. His fiancée also presents him with a white feather and breaks off their engagement.

Thus sets the exciting opening act for Mason’s masterpiece, The Four Feathers.*

What does any of this have to do with Penn State?

Three years ago this month, the university’s board of trustees, in my previously-stated opinion, caused near-irreparable harm to the school in its bungling of the Jerry Sandusky/child molestation scandal. During that painful ordeal, the university engaged the services of former FBI Director Louis Freeh to conduct an investigation. From the moment Freeh took the wraps off his report, he and the report became enmeshed in controversy. For example, his grandstanding press conference made accusations and assumptions that the written report did not support. And while it was considered a final report (Freeh never did any additional investigative work after that date), all of the key players in this drama, under advice of counsel, refused to be interviewed by Freeh or his minions. By that fact alone, at best the Freeh Report could be termed an incomplete draft.

Nevertheless, as I wrote in my last book, Crisis Communications, which contains a chapter on the crisis, mere hours after Louis Freeh released his findings, then Penn State president, Rodney Erickson, and then chair of the board of trustees, Karen Peetz, speaking on behalf of the board and the administration, held a joint press conference in which they said “the school accepted Freeh’s report unconditionally, all the allegations it contained, and the more than 100 recommendations it proposed. The board questioned nothing; it challenged nothing; it investigated nothing.”

Over the years, as holes in the report became wider and wider, the board, for the most part, has tried to soft-peddle actual facts and has taken the head-scratching stance that they never actually accepted the report, saying there are sealed documents that have never been held up to a light. Those board members have been operating in a state of self-delusion, stating publicly that it is better to ”move on” than try to get to the truth. Even the university’s shiny new president, Eric Barron, with the hindsight of two entire months under his belt, wrote, “We are likely never to have the full story.”

Barron may be right, but unless you actually look for the truth, you are most assuredly not going to find it.

And with that thought in mind, the nine, relatively new alumni board members introduced a resolution to reopen the Freeh Report and finally – finally –assess its validity and its accuracy, to try to get to the full story – the same “full story” that Dr. Barron thinks is beyond our grasp.

Last week, that motion was soundly defeated by a party-line board vote of 17-9, and the only question that springs to my mind is: Why? What are the 17 afraid of? All the minority members were trying to accomplish was to finally go though the report and seek much-needed answers from Freeh, who has never been questioned about his findings or his methodology. These nine and an army of alumni just want fresh, unbiased eyes to take a look at the report. Where’s the harm in that?

Consider, the “worst” has already happened. By prematurely accepting Freeh’s 267-page opus, the NCAA took that as a green light to kill scholarships, deny bowl game opportunities, levy more than $60 million in fines, and erase 111 football victories during the last 11 years of Coach Paterno’s career.

At this point, the actual “worst” that could happen is that the board is further revealed to have been woefully incompetent in managing the crisis.

But the best that could happen would be to shed much needed and long-denied light on the darkest chapter in the university’s history. What right-minded individual – especially a board member – wouldn’t want that, except someone with something to hide? And what could that be? The mind boggles!

According to its by-laws, a maximum of nine alumni may be elected to serve on the board, so unless some other entrenched board members change their position in a future vote, we are likely never to get the full story, as Dr. Barron predicted, and the school would be the poorer for it.

Earlier I used the phrase “irreparable harm” and I have heard people say things like “the sanctions are (mostly) gone, enrollment and donations are up, where’s the harm in just letting it go?” The harm is the aura still hovering over the university as a place that knowingly harbored and covered up child molestation. That belief is unwarranted, but without digging for and revealing the truth, that stench will linger for years to come.

Let me be clear: I think the 17 board members who voted down the motion last week are all cowards, each deserving of their own white feathers.

In Mason’s tale, the so-called coward goes through various levels of personal and physical hell to try to redeem himself. All the board has to do to redeem itself is to open up the Freeh Report to public scrutiny and let the light shine in.

Until then, it would be poetic justice if the Penn State faithful sent a white feather to each of them**, cowards all.

And I strongly encourage you to do so, along with a copy of this blog, so they understand the significance of a white feather. 


* Several film versions have been made over the years, the best (in my opinion) being the 1939 version. But none are as good as the book.

** For a list of the 17 cowards, see https://ps4rs.org/2014/10/28/seventeen-trustees-allow-freeh-report-to-stand/.