UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Gov. Tom Corbett announced this morning that he is filing a lawsuit against the NCAA over the sanctions that Penn State University agreed to last summer, arguing that the penalties are "overreaching and unlawful."
The federal lawsuit will charge that the NCAA did not have the authority to impose penalties over the Jerry Sandusky scandal and related alleged cover-up by top Penn State officials.
"This was a criminal matter, not a violation of NCAA rules," Mr. Corbett told a packed room of reporters at the Nittany Lion Inn here.
The governor, who said the lawsuit was filed on behalf of the citizens of Pennsylvania, argued that the university "had no practical alternative than to accept the sanctions" when faced with the NCAA potentially imposing suspending its football program entirely.
The result, he said, has been collateral damage on the State College community from decreased activity at restaurants, hotels and other businesses that cater to the heavy football crowds.
The 43-page lawsuit, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, argues that anti-trust laws allow the NCAA as a trade association to enforce its rules, but that the NCAA was not enforcing its own rules nor imposing standards related to its purposes.
"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 lawsuit states. "In so doing, the NCAA and its members have forced Penn State to forfeit the valuable competitive advantages of full participation in the NCAA."
The long-term "irreparable" damage includes a decline in the success of the football program and "a significant decline in the Penn State football program's role as a revenue-generator for the university," according to the lawsuit. The loss of revenue will require the university to reduce the availability or quality of its programs, or raise tuition.
Other impacts would be reduced alumni interest, lessened quality of life on campus, and injury to the Penn State football brand, as well as lost jobs, shrunken hospitality revenues, and other state revenue losses from diminished football-related activity, the lawsuit argues.
"No adequate remedy at law can compensate the citizens of Pennsylvania for the damage being inflicted by the NCAA," the suit states.
The lawsuit also singles out NCAA president Mark Emmert for criticism in particular, noting his $1.6 million in annual pay and past instances in which the organization was criticized for its handling of high-profile disciplinary matters.
It alleges that the Sandusky incident "provided Dr. Emmert with the opportunity he needed to signal emphatically that the NCAA -- his NCAA -- would never again be regarded as soft on disciplining its member institutions, particularly those institutions with elite football programs that Dr. Emmert and the NCAA had been criticized for failing to discipline adequately until that time."
It refers to the sanctions resulting from "Dr. Emmert's decision to make an example of a weakened Penn State." The lawsuit also points to a remark in his November 2011 letter about potential future action, noting that it came seven months before the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh that the NCAA used as rationale for its sanctions.
Penn State agreed in July to a set of NCAA sanctions that included paying $60 million -- approximately one year's gross football revenue, the agreement said -- into an endowment for programs preventing child sex abuse or assisting abuse victims.
The university announced Dec. 20 it had set aside the first $12 million installment while an NCAA task force establishes the endowment.
Other penalties are a four-year ban on post-season play, sharp cuts in football scholarships and forfeiture of 111 football wins going back to 1998.
The NCAA today responded to Mr. Corbett's announcement with a statement from Donald M. Remy, NCAA executive vice president and general counsel: "We are disappointed by the governor's action today. 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. 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 governor is a setback to the University's efforts."
In a statement in response to the governor's announcement, Penn State University officials said that the university "is not a party to the lawsuit and has not been involved in its preparation or filing."
The statement continued: "The University is committed to full compliance with the Consent Decree, the Athletics Integrity Agreement and, as appropriate, the implementation of the Freeh report recommendations. We look forward to continuing to work with Sen. George Mitchell as the athletic integrity monitor for complete fulfillment of the Athletics Integrity Agreement. We recognize the important role that intercollegiate athletics provides for our student athletes and the wider University community. 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."
The governor said when penalties were first announced that "part of that corrective process is to accept the serious penalties."
Asked this morning about timing of his decision to file suit, Mr. Corbett said he had heard repeated concerns from the community. His office wanted to thoroughly research the legality of a lawsuit, and did not want to make a filing during football season, he added.
Mr. Corbett, who as governor is a member of the Penn State board of trustees, has faced harsh criticism for how his office as then attorney general handled its investigation of allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Mr. Sandusky was convicted in June on 45 counts of sexually abusing boys, some on the Penn State campus.
One of the governor's most vocal critics on the Sandusky case has been Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, who will be sworn in on Jan. 15.
Mr. Corbett said his office was given authority to pursue the case by outgoing Attorney General Linda Kelly, who Mr. Corbett appointed to replace him when he became governor in 2011. His administration also has hired the Philadelphia law firm Cozen O'Connor to aid in the suit.
His general counsel, James Schultz, said he will speak to Ms. Kane later today about their lawsuit.
Ms. Kane said in a statement: "As I was not consulted or briefed beforehand on the Commonwealth's action against the NCAA, I must reserve comment until I have had an opportunity to review the case filing and receive a full briefing on the matter."
State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, said in a statement that he was "somewhat bewildered" by the governor's position. "As a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees, the governor accepted the sanctions imposed by the NCAA last summer. In fact, in his own press release on July 23, he said 'Part of [the] corrective process is to accept the serious penalties imposed today by the NCAA on Penn State University and its football program.'
"Now he is going to court to challenge the same sanctions he accepted? I think his position is compromised because he was a part of the same rush to judgment he is now condemning. I agree the sanctions are terrible, but I fear the governor's case is flawed. How can he claim the sanctions are creating a severe economic burden, and at the same time maintain that Penn State should still pay the $60 million fine? I am also very unsettled that he is proceeding with this action only two weeks before our new attorney general, Kathleen Kane, takes office. I am troubled that his own hand-picked attorney general turned over all legal standing on this matter to him. In the end, I hope there is a positive outcome for the people of Pennsylvania. Sadly, I think the governor continues to stumble over and over again when it comes to defending the honor of Penn State University."
Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a group that has been critical of the governor, said: "Gov. Corbett's lawsuit in defense of Penn State and his challenge to the Freeh Report is an action that the University President and Board ofTrustees should have immediately taken in July 2012. We are pleased to see that Gov. Corbett finally agrees with Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, the majority of the Penn State community, and the growing public at large that the NCAA exceeded its authority when it imposed these unprecedented sanctions. Further, we view Governor Corbett's legal action as a direct challenge to the Freeh Report, as it has been widely reported that the NCAA sanctions were based solely on the unfounded conclusions of that document. As PS4RS' review of the Freeh Report revealed, that document was irreparably flawed, wholly incomplete, and should never have been the basis of any findings or conclusions.
"However, we remain troubled why Gov. Corbett, a Penn State Trustee himself, failed to ask questions and critically review the implications of the sanctions when they were originally presented. If he disapproved of the terms of the NCAA Consent Decree, or if he thought there was something illegal about them, why didn't he exercise his duty to act long before now?"
A statement released on the behalf of the family of Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach who was fired in the wake of the scandal and died last year, said: "The fact that Gov. Corbett now realizes, as do many others, that there was an inexcusable rush to judgment is encouraging." It said that the analysis of the actions of the school and others in the wake of the scandal commissioned by the family is nearing completion.
Laura Olson: email@example.com or 717-787-4254. First Published January 2, 2013 5:15 AM