Courts Agree with Crisis Management Expert Steven Fink: NCAA Was out of Bounds Over Penn State Sanctions

Courts Agree with Crisis Management Expert Steven Fink: NCAA Was out of Bounds Over Penn State Sanctions

A Pennsylvania judge last week issued a "sharp rebuke" to the NCAA for forcing Penn State University to pay a $60 million fine and expend it nationwide in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse case, giving ammunition to those who argue in the case that the NCAA overstepped its authority when it imposed the most severe sanctions in its century-long history against Penn State in 2012.

The ruling in the case, (Corman v. NCAA, Commonwealth Court of PA, No. 1 M.D.2013) upholds and reinforces the opinions presented in “Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message,” a new book by best-selling author Steven Fink. In a chapter focused on the many mistakes made by the Penn State board of trustees in its "flagrant mishandling" of the Sandusky crisis, Fink refers to the NCAA as “a brass-knuckled bully” for forcing the University to accept unreasonable and unprecedented sanctions without first conducting a formal NCAA investigation on its own. The NCAA has a well-defined procedure involving its committee on infractions that normally would investigate any allegations of wrongdoing by a member school. However, in the Penn State case, the NCAA chose to ignore its own constitution and circumvented its own rules. Fink writes that the board should have insisted on such an independent investigation by the NCAA, but failed this critical fiduciary responsibility.

At the heart of the legal case now being reviewed is the validity and legality of a consent decree the NCAA forced the University to sign. Fink writes that Penn State's president, Rodney Erickson, said he felt backed into a corner by the NCAA and that the school had no choice but to agree to the consent decree. It was “accept the sanctions as presented, no questions asked, or to face a four-year death penalty, meaning no Penn State football for four years,” Fink wrote in describing Erickson's options.

Additionally, Fink writes that the school's board of trustees lacked the crisis management expertise to deal with such a crisis, and that after the board fired its then-president, its lack of seasoned leadership allowed a badly weakened board to agree to such overreaching sanctions without a whimper. Fink is president and CEO of Los Angeles-based Lexicon Communications Corp., (, the nation's oldest crisis management firm.

Ironically, part of the problematic consent decree mandates that Penn State agrees never to sue the NCAA, or automatically face the so-called “death penalty.” Thus, the current case was initiated by State Sen. Jake Corman as lead plaintiff. However in an unusual move, the court ruled that Penn State must be added to the list of plaintiffs, thereby neatly sidestepping the key provision in the consent decree that precludes PSU from suing the collegiate sports authority.