Keeping Score

Politics, Penn State Football, and Pennsylvania’s NCAA Lawsuit

Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett is taking on the NCAA. But why now?

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REUTERS/Craig Houtz

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett speaks at a news conference on the Penn State campus in State College, Pennsylvania January 2, 2013. Corbett said he will file a federal lawsuit against the NCAA over sanctions it levied against Pennsylvania State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. Over three dozen local and state officials along with Penn State students and former Penn State players took part in the news conference.

Penn State‘s football team exceeded all expectations this season. Following the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal — which included the firing, and then death, of legendary coach Joe Paterno, Sandusky’s conviction and an effective life sentence for the former assistant coach, an NCAA penalty for Penn State that included a four-year postseason ban, scholarship reductions, and a $60 million fine, and the subsequent defection of star running back Silas Redd and eight other players to other schools — the team’s 8-4 record was one of the biggest surprises in all of college football. The team, and more importantly, the school and the entire state, seemed to be moving on from the scandal.

But the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, announced on Wednesday that the state was filing a federal lawsuit against the NCAA over the “harsh, unjustified, and unprecedented punishments” it handed down to Penn State’s football team. So why would Corbett file such a suit now, and put the Sandusky affair back in the conversation? “It’s transparently political,” says Thomas Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Baldino notes that Corbett’s first major piece of business in the New Year concerned restoring the reputation of the Penn State football program, when the state faces so many other pressing issues, like finding money to improve crumbling infrastructure. This, he insists, is no accident. Corbett faces reelection in 2014. “He needs to make sure he is in good standing with Penn State alums,” Baldino says. Many alums are still upset that Penn State’s leadership didn’t more aggressively challenge the NCAA’s punishment of current Penn State football players and coaches, since they played absolutely no role in failing to report Sandusky’s abuse to local police. The state’s suit could score political points with this base.

(MORE: Penn State’s Legal Troubles Have Only Just Begun)

Plus, Corbett may face some heat from Kathleen Kane, the incoming attorney general, who takes office on Jan. 15. Kane, a Democrat, has promised to investigate Corbett’s handling of the Sandusky case when he was attorney general, before he took over as governor in 2011: Corbett, whose office took over the Sandusky probe in 2009, has been criticized for moving too slowly.

To defend himself, Corbett can not only play up Sandusky’s eventual conviction, but his concern for the people of Pennsylvania, since the suit argues that sanctions against Penn State football can hurt people who depend on the team’s success, “among them citizens who can earn income by working in the stadium on game days; the shop owners whose small businesses generate significant revenues from the sale of Penn State memorabilia, the students who help pay tuition by waiting tables filled with alumni and fans who patronize restaurants and bars before and after games; the hotel owners and employees whose jobs depend on the continued influx of tourists to central Pennsylvania; and the Penn State swimmers and other athletes whose programs are largely funded by football revenue.” The suit gives Corbett another talking point. “It can at least soften any of Kane’s attacks,” says Baldino.

But will the suit succeed? ¬†The state faces a significant hurdle: Penn State president Rodney Erickson already signed a consent decree accepting the NCAA’s punishment, and Corbett sits on Penn State’s board of trustees. “We have taken a monster off the streets,” Corbett said in July, after the NCAA handed down its punishment, “and while we will never be able to repair the injury done to these children, we must repair the damage to this university. Part of that corrective process is to accept the serious penalties imposed by the NCAA on Penn State University and its football program.”

Six months ago, Corbett said that the NCAA’s sanctions were part of the healing process. Now, according to Corbett’s suit — he’s listed as a plaintiff in the complaint¬†— these same sanctions “threaten to have a devastating, long-lasting, and irreparable effect on the Commonwealth, its citizens, and its economy.” That’s a pretty drastic about-face. Says Matthew Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at the Marquette University Law School: “You can bet that the governor’s words from last summer will be quoted in the NCAA’s filings and response.”

MORE: Penn State of Mind

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