In Pennsylvania Lawsuit, NCAA Gets Challenge It Asked For With Penn State Sanctions

Last July, the NCAA leveled Penn State University’s football program with sanctions for its involvement with and cover-up of the Jerry Sandusky rape scandal. The sanctions vacated 14 years of wins, banned the school from participating in bowl games for four years, and levied $60 million in fines. With the exception of the so-called “death penalty” it leveled on Southern Methodist University in 1986, it was the most far-reaching punishment the NCAA had ever issued.

This morning, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) announced at a press conference that his state was bringing an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA to challenge those sanctions. Flanked by area business owners, state politicians, and Penn State students, Corbett called the NCAA’s actions “overreaching and unlawful,” and accused the organization of overstepping its legal bounds in punishing Penn State.

The lawsuit may be futile. Penn State, after all, agreed to the sanctions, though Corbett reasoned that it did so only to evade the “death penalty.” Corbett’s motivations, meanwhile, seem far from pure. He has an election coming up in 2014, and he’s about to become the subject of another investigation, as incoming Attorney General Kathleen Kane (D) has promised to probe his role as attorney general in the investigation and cover-up of Sandusky’s crimes. And there are plenty of other questions to be asked. Neither Penn State nor the current attorney general are party in the suit, which only contributes to the feeling that the lawsuit is more exhibition than substance. It is also unclear how expensive the case will be for taxpayers at a time when the state is already facing a multibillion-dollar budget gap.

Despite the facts against the case and the murky questions that remain, though, it is hard to argue that the NCAA and president Mark Emmert didn’t leave the door open to such a suit when they punished Penn State. And as such, it’s hard to imagine that the organization and Emmert are getting anything else than what they asked for.

The NCAA’s punishment of Penn State was sloppy. It reeked of desperation, a public relations ploy to comfort everyone into thinking that it had done something — anything — to address the Penn State problem. The NCAA never conducted its own investigation, instead relying on the Freeh Report commissioned by the university. There was no hearing before the Committee on Infractions, no notice of allegations, no charges against the school, all typical components of an NCAA case. In announcing the sanctions, which he seemed to reach unilaterally, Emmert never specified which NCAA rule Penn State had broken.

That is the heart of Corbett and Pennsylvania’s suit. “The NCAA has punished Penn State without citing a single concrete NCAA rule that Penn State has broken, for conduct that in no way compromised the NCAA’s mission of fair competition, and with a complete disregard for the NCAA’s own enforcement procedures,” the complaint states. In doing so, the complaint asserts that the NCAA, acting as a trade association, violated antitrust law in a way that will have a “devastating, long-lasting, and irreparable effect on the Commonwealth, its citizens, and its economy.”

That the NCAA violated antitrust law, that its members essentially conspired to decimate Penn State football, is “going to be very hard to prove,” ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack said this afternoon.

Regardless of whether Pennsylvania wins the suit, though, the NCAA’s sloppy punishment has indirectly turned this into an even bigger mess than it already was, and it could get even worse. The lawsuit could jeopardize the investigation Kane, who takes office this month, has promised to lead, giving Corbett an easy out to avoid commenting on a pending issue and perhaps preventing the public from learning exactly how far into the state government the vines of the Sandusky scandal stretched. Corbett isn’t a hero here, and I’m still not sold that this lawsuit should have been filed. But it is now entirely and unfortunately possible that the NCAA’s punishment may inadvertently cause more problems in the clean up of Penn State than it ever hoped to fix.