STATE COLLEGE - The latest report from the independent monitor of Penn State's adherence to NCAA sanctions paints a positive picture of how the school is progressing with reforms and fulfilling obligations "in good faith."
Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell cited the university's appointments of an athletics integrity officer and an ethics and compliance director among the highlights of the last three months in his latest quarterly report, released Friday. He also cited governance reforms adopted in May by the university's Board of Trustees.
"During this quarterly reporting period, Penn State has continued to press forward in good faith in fulfilling its obligations under the athletics integrity agreement," Mitchell said in the report. He praised the full cooperation received from school officials and staff "who exhibit dedication to fulfilling their commitments to the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference and taking advantage of this opportunity to improve Penn State."
Mitchell took on the role after the NCAA slammed Penn State last summer with landmark penalties for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
University President Rodney Erickson said that while there was more to accomplish, he was pleased Mitchell recognized the school's efforts.
"This report validates the significant reforms that have been implemented over the past year, and reflects Penn State's steadfast and ongoing commitment to integrity and ethical conduct," he said in a statement.
Mitchell's latest report came a day after the family of the late coach Joe Paterno, along with a group of trustees, faculty and former players and coaches, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the sanctions.
The strict penalties include a four-year bowl ban, steep scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine.
Part of Mitchell's oversight includes the university's implementation of recommendations to improve governance, security and other procedures that were outlined by former FBI director Louis Freeh, who oversaw the school's internal investigation into the sweeping scandal triggered by Sandusky's arrest in November 2011. Mitchell said that all but 15 of Freeh's 119 recommendations have been completed.
Recommendations aside, the process of how Freeh went about his investigation and arrived at his scathing findings has been scrutinized by the Paterno family, some alumni and former players, along with the five trustees taking part in the lawsuit.
Freeh accused Paterno and three former school officials of concealing allegations against Sandusky. The NCAA relied on the findings before levying its landmark sanctions with unprecedented speed, less than two weeks after Freeh released his report last July.
Paterno, who was fired days after Sandusky's arrest, died in January 2012. His family and the school officials have fervently denied there was any cover-up.
Paterno's successor, Bill O'Brien, declined comment when asked about the lawsuit before a charity golf tournament Friday afternoon on campus.
Former player Keith Conlin, a local businessman and online radio show host, said he didn't like the handling of the sanctions or the Freeh report. "Like everybody else, I want the truth. That's the bottom line," Conlin said. "If it has to come to that - it has to come to lawsuits to get the truth out - then I'm for it."
Nine former players are among plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Each played between 1998 and 2011 - the years during which the NCAA vacated 111 wins under Paterno as part of the sanctions. It resulted in Paterno no longer holding the record for major college victories.
Hall of Fame tailback Lydell Mitchell, who played at Penn State from 1969-71, said he took most issue with the NCAA stripping the victories, which he said affected players who had nothing to do with the scandal.
"Personally, I think they're justified doing what they're doing," Lydell Mitchell said Friday, referring to the Paterno family and others suing the NCAA.
Sandusky was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison after being convicted last summer on dozens of criminal counts covering allegations on and off campus.
"We all feel for the victims. No question about it," Lydell Mitchell said. "But Joe didn't deserve that. I'll fight [for that] for a long time."
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has also filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA over the sanctions. Sen. Mitchell, when asked by reporters in January following a trustees meeting, said pending litigation had no bearing on his progress reports.
Sen. Mitchell's next report is due this summer. He said in Friday's update that he would look into a reorganization of university sports medicine and the role of football athletic trainers after the issues were raised in a critical Sports Illustrated story in May.
The story questioned the quality of care and the motivations behind the replacement of the longtime football team doctor, Wayne Sebastianelli, who continues to oversee Penn State sports medicine. O'Brien has vehemently disputed suggestions that he would compromise the health of his players, especially since the sanctions limit Penn State to 65 scholarship players starting in 2014 - about 20 fewer than the maximum allowed.