Why Corbett Wants to Sue the NCAA for Penn State Sanctions

“We’re not going to get into the politics of this.”

Penn State boasts the largest dues-paying alumni base of any school in the U.S., and one would imagine that many of them are registered voters in the Keystone State. That’s why it makes plenty of sense Gov. Tom Corbett would file a federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA on behalf of Penn State, challenging the stiff penalties the organization levied against the school in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. With a re-election run coming next year, Corbett could use the support of the “We Are …” crowd, especially in a blue state.

The lawsuit, which blames the NCAA’s decision to whack PSU with a $60 million fine and four years of recruiting sanctions that could cripple the football program for years to come, claims the NCAA was looking for positive publicity, a growth in power and influence for organization president Mark Emmert, and an enhancement of the competitive position of PSU rivals.

Now, nobody dislikes the NCAA more than I do. (Okay, maybe former outlaw UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian does.) The organization exists to protect its member institutions, most often at the expense of the athletes it purports to serve. Its heavy-handed punishment of Penn State came without its own investigation. Further, by talking about “maintaining an appropriate balance of values” while announcing the penalties, the NCAA established a new standard for institutional hypocrisy. The NCAA had no real jurisdiction in the case, and nothing in the institution’s rulebook indicated that such a collection of penalties was warranted. Sandusky’s actions and the school’s enabling of his twisted, horrific deeds did not provide a competitive advantage. Instead, it revealed a leadership vacuum at the top levels of the university and a gross misplacement of priorities throughout the school. If that last one were an NCAA crime, most of the big-time schools in the NCAA would be on probation.

Corbett’s lawsuit, however, is a convenient way for him to build support among Penn State fans and alumni and deflect attention from the upcoming investigation by Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, who pledged during the election to find out why it took so long for prosecutors to charge Sandusky. Corbett was the state AG before he became governor and has never answered satisfactorily why he didn’t push for a quicker close to the investigation.

It’s not hard to imagine who is happy with this suit. Penn State fans, alums and students are delighted that the school is fighting back. Family members of the late Joe Paterno are happy, as well, as they continue their crusade to clear JoePa’s name, despite his continued unwillingness to do more than just alert his superiors (as if he had any) and refusal to ban Sandusky from the football complex, even after he knew what the monster was doing to boys.

But let’s not mistake Corbett’s actions here. He is not channeling outrage from the initial ruling. In fact, when the punishments were handed down, he commented about how relieved he was that PSU didn’t receive the NCAA “death penalty,” which would have shut down the program for one or two seasons. He also said that the “corrective process is to accept the serious penalties.”

So, why the change of heart, especially after his initial reaction? It couldn’t be that he wants to curry favor with voters, could it? No way. And Corbett wouldn’t use thousands, if not millions, of taxpayer dollars to buy votes after insisting last summer that none of the money paid in fines by PSU would come from the state’s coffers, would he? When asked whether he thought the lawsuit would assist him in his reelection efforts, he said, “We’re not going to get into the politics of this.” Oh, yeah? Well, I am. This is a grandstanding measure by a governor who has cut education funding drastically and allowed statewide fracking after accepting huge contributions to his campaign from the very companies who benefit from his laissez-faire attitude toward the practice. He needs a win, and going after the NCAA is like scheduling a creampuff for Homecoming.

Add in his desire to deflect attention away from Kane’s pending investigation, and you have the perfect motivation for Corbett’s move. The NCAA deserves to get fricasseed at every turn, and some federal judge might well have a sympathetic ear for this suit, particularly if he went to Ohio State, Alabama, USC or any of the old Southwest Conference schools that have run afoul of the NCAA over the years.

Corbett’s move is designed to boost his political status, not right a wrong. Unfortunately, Penn State alumni are likely to celebrate the lawsuit with the same fervor they devote to a big victory on the football field, and that will translate to plenty of points come November 2014.