UNIVERSITY PARK — The NCAA wanted to devastate Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Leaders at rival universities wanted to weaken their competitor on the football field. The NCAA, long seen as soft on discipline, thought it would be the perfect test case to flex its muscles and show how tough it is.
For Gov. Tom Corbett, that was the NCAA’s motivation in punishing Penn State with the $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban and a reduction in scholarships, and now the Republican governor is taking the NCAA to task by filing a federal lawsuit on Wednesday that calls for the sanctions to be thrown out.
“These sanctions are an attack on past, present and future students of Penn State, the citizens of our commonwealth and our economy,” Corbett said Wednesday morning at a press conference on Penn State’s campus. “As governor of this commonwealth, I cannot and will not stand by and let it happen without a fight.”
Corbett is challenging the NCAA, saying that as a trade association, it violated antitrust laws by the way it sanctioned Penn State. The sanctions were imposed by the NCAA after the university-commissioned Freeh report found that senior leaders concealed abuse allegations against former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky, who is spending the next 30 to 60 years of his life in a state prison.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in federal court in Harrisburg.
The move is an about-face for the governor, who also is a university trustee. This summer when the sanctions were announced, Corbett said Penn State should accept them. But Corbett attributed his change of five six months later to research and hearing from people across the state about how the sanctions have hurt them.
Corbett said the NCAA made up its own rules when President Mark Emmert and a board of university presidents from across the country who are not allowed to hand out punishments boxed in Penn State President Rodney Erickson, forcing him to accept the sanctions or face the so-called “death penalty.”
Corbett said the NCAA sidestepped its own procedure by not doing its own investigation or calling for hearings.
According to the lawsuit, “The NCAA 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.
“In doing so, the NCAA and its members have forced Penn State to forfeit the valuable competitive advantages of full participation in the NCAA.”
NCAA officials were disappointed with the lawsuit, according to a statement released Wednesday.
“Not only does this forthcoming lawsuit appear to be without merit, it is an affront to all of the victims in this tragedy — lives that were destroyed by the criminal actions of Jerry Sandusky,” said Donald Remy, the executive vice president for the NCAA and its general counsel. “While the innocence that was stolen can never be restored, Penn State has accepted the consequences for its role and the role of its employees and is moving forward. Today’s announcement by the (g)overnor is a setback to the (u)niversity’s efforts.”
The NCAA will have to respond in writing within 30 days its objections to the Corbett’s accusations.
Penn State will not join the lawsuit, university spokesman David La Torre said Wednesday.
In a statement, university officials did not comment on the lawsuit. Instead, they said they are committed to complying with the terms of the consent decree, including paying the fine and implementing the recommendations from former FBI director Louis Freeh’s investigation. The university last month set aside the first payment, $12 million, in an escrow account on Dec. 20.
“We recognize the important role that intercollegiate athletics provides for our student athletes and the wider (u)niversity community,” the statement said. “Penn State continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to excellence and integrity in all aspects of our University and continues to be a world-class educational institution of which our students, faculty, staff and alumni can be justifiably proud.”
A statement from the family of former head football coach Joe Paterno said they had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and could not comment. But they said they will address the Freeh report’s findings in the “near future.”
“The fact that Governor Corbett now realizes, as do many others, that there was an inexcusable rush to judgment is encouraging,” the Paterno family said in the statement.
In the suit, Corbett said the NCAA sanctions were based on a criminal matter that was in the hands of the court system.
“These sanctions did not punish Sandusky for his despicable and criminal action. Nor did they punish the others who have been charged criminally,” Corbett said. “Rather, they punished the past, present and future students, current and former student athletes, faculty members, local businesses and the citizens of Pennsylvania who have come to cherish this great university.”
Corbett said state officials began considering the lawsuit in the summer after the sanctions were imposed. But Corbett said he did not want to sue the NCAA during the football season, which could have diverted attention away from the football team.
Corbett, the former attorney general who has been criticized for the length of time the grand jury took to indict Sandusky, denied the lawsuit was a political ploy. Corbett, up for re-election in 2014, brushed off a question about whether the lawsuit would help him gain favor with voters.
Melissa Maxman, of the firm Cozen O’Connor in Washington — not the state’s lawyers or the Attorney General’s Office — will handle the litigation. The cost to litigate the suit was not available.
Corbett said current Attorney General Linda Kelly, whose last day is Jan. 14, approved the lawsuit being delegated to an outside firm. Incoming Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane cannot cancel the suit, Corbett said.
Kane declined to comment to The Associated Press when reached Wednesday. Kane will take office Jan. 15 and said she wants to get a full briefing on the suit before she comments about it.
In addition to the Corbett’s arguments that the NCAA overstepped its authority, Corbett is saying the sanctions will end up hurting the local economy, as a decrease in attendance at Beaver Stadium will lead to a loss in revenue for hotels, restaurants and retailers.
Vern Squier, the president of Centre County Chamber of Business and Industry, was among dozens of locals who flanked the governor at the press conference inside the Nittany Lion Inn. In an interview later, Squier said local businesses have been affected by the terms of the sanctions, and negative impacts could be felt for years to come.
Republican lawmakers, invited for the press conference, were happy with the announcement. State Sen. Jake Corman, state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, and county commissioners Steve Dershem and Chris Exarchos all said they supported the lawsuit.
“I think the NCAA acted hastily on this,” Dershem said. “I think there should have been conversations, I think they should have waited for the complete criminal justice system to work itself through, and they obviously had Penn State over a barrel.”
State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, said he was bewildered by the governor’s change of heart, questioning how Corbett as a trustee could have accepted the sanctions this summer and now condemn them.
“I think his position is compromised because he was a part of the same rush to judgment he is now condemning,” Conklin said in a news release.
“Sadly, I think the governor continues to stumble over and over again when it comes to defending the honor of Penn State.”
Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a group of alumni that has long been critical of the university’s board of trustees and how it handled the Sandusky scandal, said in a news release Wednesday its members welcome the lawsuit but wonder why it took the governor so long.
The group is troubled because Corbett did not take a more critical look at the sanctions when they were handed down.
“If he disapproved of the terms of the NCAA (c)onsent (d)ecree, or if he thought there was something illegal about them, why didn’t he exercise his duty to act long before now?” said Maribeth Schmidt, a PS4RS spokeswoman.