UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Nearly six months after telling Penn State University to accept sanctions issued by the NCAA, Gov. Tom Corbett now says the penalties are "overreaching" and is asking a federal judge to throw them out.
Mr. Corbett, a Republican who as attorney general began the criminal investigation of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky into child sex abuse that led to his conviction and to the NCAA sanctions, filed a 43-page lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
In that document and during a news conference Wednesday announcing the suit, the governor argued that the NCAA had no authority to punish Penn State over the Sandusky scandal and alleged cover-up by top university officials of child abuse incidents.
"This was a criminal matter, not a violation of NCAA rules," Mr. Corbett said.
The antitrust lawsuit argues that Penn State did not violate any NCAA rules and attributes the school's ultimate acceptance of the governing body's penalties to threats that otherwise it would suspend Penn State's football program.
The suit also targets NCAA president Mark Emmert, alleging that he exploited Penn State's situation in an effort to show that his organization was tough on discipline.
The result, the governor said, has been collateral damage to the university and the surrounding State College community from decreased activity at restaurants, hotels and other businesses that cater to the football crowds.
"These sanctions did not punish Sandusky nor did they punish the others who have been charged," Mr. Corbett said. "Rather, they punished the past, the present and the future students, current and former student athletes, local businesses, and the citizens of Pennsylvania."
An attorney for the NCAA disagreed, calling the lawsuit "a setback to the university's efforts."
"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 NCAA's executive vice president and general counsel.
Penn State officials said the university is not a party to the lawsuit and was not involved in its preparation.
The governor's suit also is separate from a legislative effort by state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, to ensure any fines paid by Penn State are spent only within Pennsylvania.
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.
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.
When those penalties were announced in July, Mr. Corbett said "part of that corrective process is to accept the serious penalties."
As for why he did not oppose the penalties sooner, Mr. Corbett said his office wanted to thoroughly research the issue and he did not want to make a filing during football season.
The abrupt public shift comes fewer than two weeks before a Democrat takes over the state attorney general's office.
The incoming attorney general, Kathleen Kane, has been one of Mr. Corbett's harshest critics on the handling of the Sandusky case. He did not consult with her before filing suit, instead seeking authority from outgoing Attorney General Linda Kelly, who was appointed to her post by Mr. Corbett when he became governor.
A spokesman for Ms. Kelly said the governor's general counsel requested permission to handle the suit on Dec. 14, and Ms. Kelly responded on Dec. 17.
The Philadelphia law firm Cozen O'Connor also has been retained to work on the suit.
Through a spokesman, Ms. Kane declined to comment on the governor's decision not to consult her.
"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," she said.
The lawsuit does not estimate current or future economic damages, though it does list a wide swath of impacts that it states "will last well beyond the term of the sanctions."
Those include 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." The loss of revenue will require the university to reduce the availability or quality of its programs, or raise tuition, according to the suit.
While home attendance was down again in 2012 --averaging 96,730, from a high of 108,917 in 2007 -- Penn State still had the fifth-highest average attendance across the NCAA.
Other listed impacts are reduced alumni interest, lessened quality of campus life, 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 stigma attached will diminish recruitment of students and student athletes, as well as the value of a Penn State education, for decades," it states. "No adequate remedy at law can compensate the citizens of Pennsylvania for the damage being inflicted by the NCAA."
The lawsuit singles out the NCAA's Mr. Emmert in particular, noting his $1.6 million in annual pay and past instances in which the NCAA was criticized for how it handled high-profile disciplinary matters.
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 a rationale for its sanctions.
Some of those who had criticized Mr. Corbett's handling of the Sandusky case, including an alumni group known as Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, said they were encouraged by his decision to file the lawsuit.
"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," the group said in a statement, adding that they "remain troubled" about why Mr. Corbett was not more critical of the sanctions initially.
A statement released on the behalf of the family of Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach who was fired in the immediate aftermath 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 an analysis commissioned by the family of Penn State's actions since the scandal is nearing completion.
Sandusky, 68, was convicted in June on charges he sexually abused 10 boys, some on Penn State's campus. He's serving a 30- to 60-year prison term.
Laura Olson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254.