Tom Corbett’s NCAA Lawsuit: The Biggest Sports Story of 2013?


Though it didn’t dominate the sports press during college football’s bowl game week–and there’s an irony for you–Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association may ultimately prove to be the biggest sports story of 2013.

For those who don’t recall the details on this, the NCAA, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, banned the Penn State football team from postseason and bowl games for the next four years, voided their last 14 seasons, reduced their football scholarships, and fined the university $60 million to establish an endowment to help abused children across the country.

Corbett is seeking to have all of it thrown out. In an interview with CNN at 3:20 pm this afternoon, Corbett said that he initially supported the NCAA sanctions because “When you belong to an organization, you have to follow its rules.” But “The more we looked into it, the more we realized that the NCAA violated its own rules when the executive committee usurped the infractions committee…The NCAA went well beyond their intended purpose. They had no authority to do what they did…This is an antitrust lawsuit.”

Essentially Corbett is arguing that given the criminal actions against those responsible at Penn State for covering up Sandusky’s actions and the coming civil court suits, the NCAA’s sanctions amount to double jeopardy for the university.

But Corbett is also arguing a larger case. Over the past half century the NCAA’s power to regulate collegiate sports has become virtually limitless. It tells college students who play sports what jobs they can and can’t hold, thus controlling the income of tens of thousands of student athletes. Corbett is questioning what right an athletic association to pass judgment as if they legally represented the victims in this case.

The NCAA has made itself into, in effect, a de facto lawmaking body–or at least acts as if it were. But in their actions against Penn State they’re moving into a new and potentially dangerous territory, claiming the right to levy millions of dollars over a matter that is only marginally involves sports.

And there is perhaps one more issue that needs to be addressed, namely why, when Joe Paterno is dead, former university president Graham Spanier has resigned in disgrace (and may soon be indicted), and athletic director Tim Curley (currently on leave) and senior vice president Gary Schultz are also gone (jury selection for their perjury trail starts Jan 7), the NCAA is claiming the right to punish alumni and the residents of Pennsylvania as well as students, athletes and current university faculty and staff who weren’t involved or even at Penn State when the abuses occurred.

Whatever else may be on Corbett’s agenda–State Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane made a campaign promise last summer to investigate his handling of the Sandusky case–his lawsuit may one day be viewed in hindsight as the first serious check to the power grabbing of the most powerful organization in American sports.