Piling on is one of those things you’re supposed to know when you see it.
Some of us argued that’s what the NCAA did back in July, when it knee-capped Penn State’s program for years to come with scholarship losses and a bowl ban, then instructed the university to fork over $60 million besides. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett joined the chorus with a lawsuit seeking to have the sanctions thrown out.
Essentially, he asked a federal court to make the NCAA take its foot off Penn State’s neck, because the football team needs to get back to making the kind of money it did not too long ago for the school, the surrounding communities and a state that needs every job. Corbett’s staff even included the phrase “pile on” on page 19 of the 43-page lawsuit, in case the judges missed the point. Cold as that sounds considering the crimes involved, it also sounds reasonable — so long as those same people honor the commitment to fight child abuse they made when the Jerry Sandusky scandal was white-hot.
Many other people, of course, thought the NCAA wasn’t harsh enough. So just to be clear: No one is in favor of abusing children.
But determining the punishment for covering up an actual crime — for what a few men in high places at Penn State did, instead of what they should have done — is still a matter for the courts, not the NCAA. That’s where the damages will be decided going forward, and where they had been until the NCAA took a whack. The lawsuit doesn’t just guess at why the NCAA and President Mark Emmert overstepped the boundary line; it conveniently summarizes their “real motives” on page 4: “the opportunity to gain leverage in the court of public opinion, boost the reputation and power of the NCAA’s president, enhance the competitive position of certain NCAA members, and weaken a fellow competitor.”
Tough as any of those claims are to prove, the commonwealth’s lawyers are on the right track. Most of Emmert’s previous stabs at reforming the problems he can do something about — Google “Ohio State and coach Jim Tressel” or “Auburn and quarterback Cam Newton” or “Miami and agent Nevin Shapiro” — have been roundly panned. Maybe, like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the “Bountygate” mess, he couldn’t resist a slam-dunk opportunity to look strong. And maybe a few others on the executive committee that rubber-stamped those unprecedented penalties didn’t mind seeing Penn State being humbled and weakened. Added up, that looks plausibly enough like a rush to judgment.
One thing is certain. The claim at the center of the lawsuit — that the sanctions add up to a violation of antitrust law — has merit, according to one legal expert contacted by The Associated Press on Wednesday. Besides, the NCAA’s record in the courts isn’t as good as you might expect for an organization that can wrap itself in the cloak of protecting “student-athletes’ and issues rulings like they were thunderbolts from on high. So it’s worth remembering: Even Jerry Tarkanian, the one-time UNLV coach and full-time outlaw, posted a 1-1 career record in court fights with the NCAA.
More relevant to this discussion, though, is a case finally decided in 1984 by the Supreme Court, which wrested control of the TV rights to games from the NCAA and awarded them to many of the same powerhouse programs that later became major players in the BCS cartel — and have banked hundreds of millions since, without the NCAA taking a cut. It’s possible, too, that he same restraint-of-trade findings that cost the NCAA in that case might be in play in the Pennsylvania lawsuit.
To be fair, the NCAA has plenty of good lawyers and has won its share of court battles, too. Maybe that’s why its first response, in a statement, glossed over a discussion of the legal issues in the case and shamelessly tried to change the subject.
“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,” the organization said in a statement. “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.”
Since its own house is such a mess, it seems fair to ask whether the NCAA is in any position to decide whether Penn State and the board of trustees who took over in the wake of the Sandusky affair have been sufficiently contrite. They paid $6.5 million for an investigation of what went wrong and how to stop it the next time. They shamed Joe Paterno, then took down his statue, which was more than enough for me. They’ll be paying reparations for years, and should. Yet everyone at Penn State was shell-shocked in July that new President Rodney Erickson agreed to waive the school’s right to contest the NCAA sanctions, a decision that Corbett, his boss, initially agreed with. That’s why Penn State isn’t a part of the current lawsuit.
But the state’s year-to-year drop in revenues proved to be the final straw. Corbett reversed himself and decided enough is enough. It should be comforting to anyone who wants to see justice done that the matter is in the hands of a real court, instead of the kangaroo court that Emmert and his crew convened at their headquarters in Indianapolis.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.