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Pennsylvania Suing NCAA Over Penn State Sanctions

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett announced a lawsuit today against the National Collegiate Athletic Association over the sanctions levied against Pennsylvania State University as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex-abuse scandal.

In a lawsuit that was filed today in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, Corbett asks the court to throw out all of the NCAA's sanctions against the school, calling them "overreaching and unlawful."

"While what occurred at Penn State was both criminal and heinous, the conduct for which Penn State was sanctioned consisted of alleged failures to report criminal activity on campus that did not impact fairness or integrity on the playing field," Corbett said in a statement.

"These punishments threaten to have a devastating, long-lasting and irreparable effect on the state, its citizens and its economy," the governor said.

Sandusky, a former assistant coach for the Penn State football team, was convicted in June of 45 counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys. The 68-year-old Sandusky was sentenced to 30-60 years of prison in October.

After former FBI director Louis J. Freeh released a damning report in July accusing Penn State administrative leaders of "total and consistent disregard ... for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims," the NCAA laid the hammer down against the school, announcing "unprecedented" penalties on July 23.

The NCAA instituted a four-year postseason ban on Penn State's football team beginning with the 2012-13 school year, a four-year reduction in athletic scholarships for football players, and vacated all of the team's wins from 1998-2011. The organization also levied a $60 million fine against the Penn State football program, to be paid over a five-year span, which will go toward an endowment for child-sex-abuse victims and the prevention of child sex abuse.

NCAA president Mark Emmert and Penn State president Rodney Erickson signed a consent decree on July 23 to agree to the terms of the sanctions. As part of the agreement, the NCAA required the university to hire an independent athletics integrity monitor of the NCAA's choosing for the next five years at the school's expense. (The NCAA selected former U.S. Senator George Mitchell for the role in August.)

In the consent decree, the NCAA admits that the sexual abuse of children on campus by a former university official and the concealment of that abuse "ordinarily would not be actionable by the NCAA," but says, "in this instance, it was the fear of or deference to the omnipotent football program that enabled a sexual predator to attract and abuse his victims." Specifically, the NCAA said in July that "leadership failures at Penn State ... directly violated Association bylaws and the NCAA Constitution."

Corbett's Take

Corbett doesn't quite see eye-to-eye with the punishments meted out by the NCAA in response to the scandal, to say the least.

"A handful of top NCAA officials simply inserted themselves into an issue they had no authority to police and one that was clearly being handled by the justice system," the governor said in a statement.

"The NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert, seized upon the opportunity for publicity for their own benefit to make a showing of aggressive discipline on the backs of the citizens of our commonwealth and Penn State University," Corbett said, "and this is why I have chosen to fight this in the courts."

The lawsuit accuses the association of failing to cite "a single concrete NCAA rule" that Penn State broke during the Sandusky scandal.

Soon after Corbett's press conference to announce the lawsuit, the NCAA fired back.

"We are disappointed by the governor's action today," said Donald M. Remy, NCAA executive vice president and general counsel, in a statement. "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."

The school has no involvement in the lawsuit, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel reported on Jan. 1. Fellow SI writer Michael McCann later confirmed that Penn State contractually waived its right to sue the NCAA as part of the consent decree.

McCann, a sports-law expert, says the application of law is "hard to predict" in this case, as the "lawsuit emerges from unique circumstances that do not readily fit NCAA precedent." He does predict that "however the arguments play out, this is poised to become a landmark case in NCAA legal history."

One potential problem for Corbett and the plaintiffs moving forward? A July 23 quote from Corbett that's been making its way around the internet today: "Part of that corrective process is to accept the serious penalties imposed today by the NCAA and PSU and its football program."

For what it's worth, a survey released in March 2012 by Inside Higher Ed found that nearly 70 percent of college and university presidents to believe that recent collegiate athletic scandals were hurting all of higher education. In October, the NCAA unveiled a new enforcement structure with tougher penalties for the most severe violations by coaches and/or schools.

Photo: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett speaks at a news conference on Wednesday in State College, Pa. The NCAA overstepped its authority by imposing hefty sanctions on Penn State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, Corbett said in announcing a federal lawsuit against the college athletics governing body. (Ralph Wilson/AP)

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