Judge throws out Gov. Corbett's lawsuit vs. NCAA, calls it 'Hail Mary pass'

mdawson@centredaily.comJune 6, 2013 

Gov. Tom Corbett’s attempt to reverse the sanctions imposed on Penn State by suing the NCAA was like lobbing up “a Hail Mary pass,” a federal judge said Thursday as she dashed the hopes of Nittany Lions fans and threw out the lawsuit.

Judge Yvette Kane, of the U.S. Middle District Court in Harrisburg, dismissed the argument by Corbett that the $60 million fine against Penn State, the bowl ban and scholarship reduction would make Penn State a weaker competitor and subsequently hurt local businesses dependent on revenues related to football weekends.

While Kane said the NCAA’s power to make such a sweeping decision does “raise serious questions about the economic impact of NCAA sanctions on innocent parties,” those issues are not relevant for an antitrust lawsuit.

“These are important questions deserving of public debate, but they are not antitrust questions,” Kane said in her 28-page opinion that was occasionally sprinkled with football jargon. “In another forum the complaint’s appeal to equity and common sense may win the day, but in the antitrust world these arguments fail to advance the ball.”

Corbett sued the NCAA in January, and the sports organization’s lawyers blasted the lawsuit and moved to have it thrown out.

Penn State was never a party to the lawsuit.

In a statement, the NCAA’s chief legal officer said the organization was “exceedingly pleased” with the result.

“Our hope is that this decision not only will end this case but also serve as a beginning of the end of the divide among those who, like Penn State, want to move forward to put the horror of the Sandusky crimes behind the university and those who want to prolong the fight and with it the pain for all involved,” lawyer Donald Remy said.

Corbett issued a prepared statement Thursday afternoon, saying he is disappointed but that he will analyze the ruling with his legal team and review his options.

"I am disappointed with the court's decision and believe that the sanctions have harmed the citizens, students, athletes, alumni and taxpayers of Pennsylvania,” Corbett said. “Countless individuals and small businesses throughout the state will continue to suffer because of the NCAA's actions.

"I feel strongly that the claims we raised in this lawsuit were compelling and these issues deserved a complete and thorough review by the court.”

Kane heard oral arguments over whether to dismiss it during a hearing last month in Harrisburg, and the NCAA’s arguments against Corbett won her over, as indicated by the rationale for her decision that she spelled out in the ruling.

Among his arguments in the lawsuit, Corbett contended that the scholarship reductions would hurt Penn State on the field, and he accused the NCAA of stifling competition under the federal Sherman Antitrust Act. Corbett also said the fallout from a weaker Nittany Lions team would result in financial losses for small business owners, hoteliers and restaurateurs in State College who feed off the football gravy train for home games.

But Kane didn’t buy the legal merit for arguments.

Kane said the reduction of scholarships is not a commercial activity under the antitrust law, and that any financial losses felt by business owners in the community is irrelevant under case law. She said Corbett’s lawsuit outlines harms caused by Penn State being less competitive, not the notion of overall competition in college football that would be required in an antitrust case.

Further, she said a reduction in scholarships at Penn State would not have a nationwide anti-competitive effect on the top high school football recruits

Kane rejected Corbett’s conspiracy argument that the NCAA’s top officials piled on the sanctions in the hope of improving their organization’s public image. Kane said Corbett’s lawsuit does not support the accusation and instead relies on the contention that the NCAA’s decision was a significant departure from its previous actions regarding sanctioning universities.

Kane said she “cannot find any factual allegations supporting (Corbett’s) allegation of ‘concerted action’ that might nudge (his) conspiracy claim into ‘plausible’ territory.”

Corbett’s lawsuit was one of two that have been brought against the NCAA to overturn the sanctions.

With the dismissal of Corbett’s lawsuit, the one remaining is the case the family of late head coach Joe Paterno and a number of supporters filed in Centre County court last week, accusing the organization and its top two leaders of a breach of contract, conspiracy and defamation.

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.

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