Official: Penn State just avoided 4-year ban

Workers place a tarp on a fence in front of the statue of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno before removing the statue, July 22, 2012, in State College, Pa. The famed statue of Paterno was taken down from outside the Penn State football stadium Sunday, eliminating a key piece of the iconography surrounding the once-sainted football coach accused of burying child sex abuse allegations against a retired assistant. AP Photo/John Beale

(CBS/AP) Penn State faced the threat of a four-year ban on playing football before the NCAA imposed sanctions this week over the school's handling of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, a university spokesman said Wednesday.

David La Torre said the potential for the multiyear "death penalty" was floated during discussions between Penn State President Rodney Erickson and NCAA officials before Penn State was hit Monday with a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl game ban, reduced football scholarships and the forfeiture of 112 wins.

The school trustees met with Erickson on the subject at a State College hotel Wednesday and afterward issued a statement calling the NCAA punishment "unfortunate" but better than the alternative — the so-called "death penalty."

The penalty hasn't been used since the NCAA suspended Southern Methodist University for the 1987 season. SMU then sat out the `88 season on its own and has never fully recovered its status in college football.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said on "CBS This Morning" on Tuesday he and the executive committee decided against imposing a suspension of play, the so-called "death penalty," on Penn State following the child sex abuse scandal because, "it was too blunt an instrument."

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"It affects too many people that had utterly nothing to do with these affairs," Emmert said. "The marching band didn't have anything to do with this. The mom-and-pop that's running the hot dog stand in the town didn't have anything to do with this. The rest of the institution probably had nothing to do with this."

Reporters on Wednesday were barred from the conference room where the Penn State trustees met, and trustees avoided them after the meeting broke up.

The potential for a four-year ban, first reported by ESPN, showed how high the stakes were as college sports' governing body considered how to respond to an internal school investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh that found former coach Joe Paterno and three other top college officials helped conceal reports that Sandusky, a former assistant coach, was abusing children.

Emmert said earlier this week that if a total football ban had been imposed, other penalties would have accompanied it.

"If the death penalty were to be imposed, I'm quite sure that the executive committee and I ... would not have agreed to just the death penalty. It would have included other penalties as well," Emmert said as the sanctions were unveiled.

An NCAA spokeswoman declined further comment Wednesday on negotiations with Penn State.

Many alumni and some trustees were incensed over the unprecedented NCAA penalty — which likely will cripple Penn State's football team for years to come — and Penn State's quick acceptance of it.

A person with knowledge of the meeting said earlier Wednesday that trustees were to discuss whether Erickson had the authority to agree to the sanctions without first getting the board's approval. The person was not authorized to discuss the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some trustees had expressed concern that Erickson may have violated a board rule that says the board must authorize the signing of "contracts, legal documents, and other obligations."

The board statement made no reference to the propriety of what Erickson had done, saying trustees held a discussion but did not take any votes.

"The board finds the punitive sanctions difficult and the process with the NCAA unfortunate," the statement said. "But as we understand it, the alternatives were worse as confirmed by NCAA President Mark Emmert's recent statement that Penn State was likely facing a multi-year death sentence."

La Torre said Wednesday that Erickson had authority to act without the approval of the full board.

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