Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) announced on Wednesday morning he and the state of Pennsylvania would sue the NCAA seeking to overturn its sanctions against Penn State University and its football program.
But neither he nor his general counsel, James Schultz, would say in a press conference why the lawsuit was being filed 13 days before newly elected state Attorney General Kathleen Kane took office, though Corbett said she had agreed to a delegation of authority on the case.
Kane, a Democrat, defeated Republican David Freed in the Nov. 6 general election. An outside firm, Cozen O’Connor, has been brought in to pursue the lawsuit.
Corbett said the NCAA disregarded its own bylaws when it handed down extensive penalties against the school last July including an order to pay $60 million to sexual abuse prevention programs, the forfeiture of 111 wins from the football program’s records, as well as increased scholarship limits and a ban on post-season play.
“This was a criminal matter, not a violation of NCAA rules,” said Corbett, himself a member of the school’s board of trustees.
The sanctions were handed down as punishment for the actions of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty of 45 of 48 counts of sexual abuse against children last June. Four months later, he was sentenced to between 30 and 60 years in prison.
But while the school has addressed Sandusky’s crimes in a number of civil lawsuits brought by the families of his victims, Corbett said, the NCAA exceeded its jurisdiction by forcing new President Rodney A. Erickson to accept its ruling by threatening him with a four-year “death penalty” — a complete suspension of football operations.
“A handful of top NCAA officials simply inserted themselves into an issue they had no right to police by their own bylaws,” said Corbett.
The governor reiterated that while he advised both Erickson and board leadership, the school will not take part in the lawsuit. Corbett said that, if the state wins its suit, it would recommend to Penn State that it donate the $60 million to work with local groups that help sexual abuse victims.
Corbett was flanked by who he described as various business owners in State College, Pennsylvania, where the university is located, and current and former students, representing who he described as outside parties hurt by the impact against the football team.
“I’m here for one reason: I believe this to be the right thing to do, on behalf of the students who have gone through this institution, the students who are here now, and the citizens of Pennsylvania,” he said.
Yet when pressed for details, neither he nor Schultz could provide details on how the penalties against the school hurt the surrounding community. State Sen. Jake Corman (R), who represents State College as part of the 34th district, said he didn’t have any figures, either, but supported the governor’s point.
“Clearly, the attendance was down, and this was just the first year [of the punishment],” Corman said. “The crowds were not what they once were.”
ESPN reported in November 2012 that the Nittany Lions football team drew an average of 96,730 fans to home games this season, part of an overall decline over the past five years. But the decrease was also blamed on unpopular new donations standards and a reduction in seating capacity at Beaver Stadium to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Schultz said that, as a trade association, the NCAA should have engaged in a hearings process before sanctioning Penn State, including granting the school the right to appeal whatever sentence levied against it.
“They went outside the rules and attacked Penn State to the detriment of competition in the entire market,” Schultz said. “The NCAA didn’t have any business in imposing these sanctions. This was a criminal act.”
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