By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Penn State University accepted unprecedented NCAA penalties as punishment for a child sex abuse cover-up because they were better than the alternative: a four-year death sentence for its football program, according to school trustees.
The trustees said in a statement late Wednesday after a meeting with President Rodney Erickson that it found the "punitive sanctions difficult" and the process with the governing body of U.S. college sports "unfortunate."
"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," the Penn State Board of Trustees said in a statement released by school spokesman David La Torre.
La Torre confirmed that the punishment under discussion was a four-year death penalty, which would have prevented Penn State from playing any games. The current penalty bars it from post-season bowl games for four years, but allows regular season play.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association said it was punishing Penn State for its handling of child sex abuse reports against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
In June, Sandusky was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, sometimes at the Penn State facilities. He awaits sentencing and faces up to 373 years in prison.
The board said it discussed with Erickson the punishment he accepted for Penn State, which included a $60 million fine, a reduction in football scholarships, a four-year ban from lucrative post-season games and the voiding of the last 14 years of football victories.
This month, former FBI director Louis Freeh released a report that criticized the late legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who was Sandusky's boss, for protecting the serial pedophile and the school's image at the expense of young victims.
The NCAA's actions stripped Paterno of his record for victories in collegiate football. It also severely bruised the football team, whose star recruits have already begun looking at other schools.
But the death penalty would have devastated the football program, at the very least costing it at least $240 million in revenue for the four years the stadium would be shuttered. The $60 million fine levied by the NCAA was chosen, Emmert said, because it represented the program's annual gross revenue.
The only time the NCAA has used the death penalty was against South Methodist University in 1987, for improperly paying players. The NCAA banned SMU for the 1987 season, and the university opted not to play in 1988 rather than play an abbreviated season.
SMU has never fully recovered from the one-year ban. It was two decades before it reached post-season play again, and has managed just three winning seasons since returning to play in 1989.
Meanwhile on Thursday, the Freeh report was criticized as unfair and thinly researched by the organization Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, whose membership includes 7,500 alumni. The group posted online its own document aimed at refuting the points made by the Freeh report.
(Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Eric Walsh)