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Corbett's NCAA lawsuit: Right reason, wrong time?

| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 8:56 p.m.

It was a shocker. And it grabbed headlines, not just in Pennsylvania but across the nation. Gov. Tom Corbett, in an abrupt turnabout, is suing the NCAA for sanctions imposed on Penn State University in the notorious Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal.

But how should we interpret Corbett's now widely reported intentions? Are they the brilliant political strategy of a governor determined to right a wrong and defend his state against the bullying tactics of an out-of-control regulatory body? Or are they the desperate flailing of an embattled governor feverishly trying to rescue his career from a political defeat some predict?

Certainly, many political observers see cynical political calculations working here, a none-too-subtle attempt by an unpopular governor to shore up his political strength in advance of a 2014 re-election certain to be challenging for him. A chorus of critics has characterized the planned suit as “frivolous,” “grandstanding,” “a disgrace” and “laughable.”

Moreover, Corbett's previous involvement in the case is controversial. Critics accuse him of dragging his feet as attorney general in the early Sandusky investigation to benefit his gubernatorial candidacy. Then, in July, after the NCAA sanctions were announced, he publicly supported them, calling them necessary “corrective actions” for Penn State.

Corbett's new position puts him squarely on both sides of the issue, leaving little doubt that political calculations are in play. Beyond dispute, the governor's anemic approval ratings stem in part from his handling of the prosecution and his later role as an ex-officio member of the Penn State Board of Trustees.

But a majority of Pennsylvanians believe the NCAA sanctions are unfair. Pennsylvanians agree with the governor that the NCAA blatantly overstepped its bounds, ignored its own procedures and denied Penn State due process.

Legal observers disagree in evaluating the suit, some concluding it will be a hard case to win, while others believe there are significant antitrust issues raised in Corbett's arguments.

Surely Corbett's arguments are familiar since they compose many of the same criticisms many Pennsylvanians have leveled at the NCAA sanctions since last year. Corbett's federal lawsuit alleges:

• The NCAA is a “trade organization” that overstepped its authority, involving itself in a criminal case. In imposing sanctions on Penn State, the NCAA ignored its own procedures and guidelines.

• The NCAA virtually blackmailed Penn State into accepting the sanctions without due process by threatening to suspend the football program permanently (the “death penalty”).

• The NCAA “has punished Penn State without citing a single concrete NCAA rule that Penn State has broken and with a complete disregard for the NCAA's own enforcement procedures.”

• The NCAA penalties have imposed “irreparable damage on Pennsylvania, on its businesses and reputation, and on the Penn State football team.”

Whether one endorses these arguments or not, many fair-minded people will agree that most of them should have been aired when sanctions were imposed. Corbett's lawsuit, better late than never, will do that.

The stakes for Corbett in this bold strategy are immense. In going after the sanctions and the NCAA, he is adopting a politically popular policy. At the same time, he risks the credible criticism that he is a hypocritical politician who initially supported the NCAA actions but is changing course because he is in political trouble. Furthermore, suing the NCAA puts the case squarely into the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, a strategy with some significant pluses and minuses for him.

All in all, Corbett's action seems to be an instance of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. In defending the state's rights against what many believe to be an organization run amok, Corbett is exercising the leadership expected of the state's chief executive.

But he is doing it belatedly and perhaps reluctantly. For Pennsylvanians, a measured review of the correctness and proportionality of the NCAA sanctions is a necessary, if painful, exercise. For Pennsylvania's governor, it might also be a necessary, if painful, exercise — and one fraught with potential political peril.

Terry Madonna is a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Michael Young, a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University, is managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research.

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