This story was published on the Lansing City Pulse website on November 11, 2011.
by Nicole LaChance
Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno fulfilled his legal obligation in the university’s sex abuse scandal, a local professor of sports law and torts said today.
“He has a lawyer and I think it’s possible that they will be looking for some legal violations,” Cooley Law School professor Ernie Phillips. “But I don’t see that he would have any legal responsibility. I think he is playing it safe.”
To make a case against Paterno, Phillips said, the plaintiffs have to show that he breached a legal duty owed to the victims of the alleged abuse.
However, Phillips believes Paterno could have followed the situation more closely. The coach should have kept an eye on Jerry Sandusky, the former defense coordinator who has been charged in the case and monitored whether university sanctions were imposed, he said.
“I think it was just odd that he would not have more knowledge about the severity and frequency with which [Sandusky] was involved,” said Phillips, adding that was an ethical matter, not a legal one.
Legal responsibility in the case should instead go to Sandusky and the university officials who allegedly covered up the case, he said. This applies to both criminal and civil liability.
Phillips categorized the case as an “institutional conspiracy” meant to protect the football program.
Phillips said that grand jury reports say communications about the incident spread through the university, although it’s not clear what was initially reported and what made it to President Graham Spanier, whom the Board of Trustees fired Tuesday along with Paterno.
“It does seem to be that Division 1 football is getting to be such an incredibly expensive enterprise [and] that people will do a lot to see that this enterprise continues on to generate the revenue that it requires,” Philips said.
According to Forbes magazine sports columnist Kristi Dosh, Penn State’s football program brought in over $70 million during the 2009-2010 season.
Phillips said it’s likely that university officials knew more details about what was happening and covered it up to protect the school and the football program. The grand jury reports also revealed the frequency of Sandusky’s alleged encounters with the children. He did, however, have a cover through his Second Mile football camp, which may be why the alleged abuse went on for so long, Phillips said.