HARRISBURG – As he confirmed the nationally explosive news that he is suing the NCAA over its sanctions against Penn State, Gov. Tom Corbett refused to “get into the politics of this.” But his actions speak louder than words.
Since Corbett’s earliest days as governor, when his call for a 50 percent funding cut for universities including Penn State prompted widespread protests, politics have permeated the relationship between Pennsylvania’s chief executive and its largest university.
As the Republican contemplates his expected 2014 re-election campaign, that relationship could prove crucial to his political future.
Corbett’s fingerprints are all over the investigation that culminated in the June conviction of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years. He is serving a 30- to 60-year term in state prison.
The case triggered a tangled and ugly scandal that abruptly ended the long and distinguished career of head coach Joe Paterno in November 2011 and left three other men facing criminal charges for an alleged cover-up of Sandusky’s activities.
It sullied the reputations of Penn State and its nationally prominent football program. For many alumni, players and fans, Happy Valley is anything but happy nowadays.
Corbett was Pennsylvania’s attorney general when the state took over the Sandusky probe in early 2009. He had been governor for nearly a year – and a voting member of its board of trustees – by the time Sandusky was charged.
Corbett supported the board’s unilateral ouster of Paterno, which spawned an angry backlash that turned bitter when Paterno died of cancer less than three months later. Ex-Penn State president Graham Spanier, who is among the trio charged in the alleged cover-up, was forced out at the same time.
The governor embraced the NCAA sanctions, including $60 million in fines and a four-year ban on postseason play, calling them part of the “corrective process” at Penn State. Officials said the penalties, which further stoked resentment among university supporters, responded to findings in Penn State’s internal investigation of its handling of the case.
But Corbett was singing a different tune Wednesday as his lawyers filed a federal antitrust lawsuit to overturn the sanctions. He explained his flip-flop by saying he now believes the NCAA overstepped its authority. Critics called it political grandstanding.
The timing of the filing was noteworthy, coming less than two weeks before the Jan. 15 swearing-in of Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, the first Democrat and first woman to win the office since it became an elected position in 1980.
Kane, who has declined to comment on the lawsuit, will join Auditor General-elect Eugene DePasquale and state Treasurer Rob McCord in an all-Democrat team of state row officers who will work alongside Corbett and the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Some political observers said the governor’s move likely will elevate his standing among university stalwarts.
“He is giving voice to some of the same people who might have been his loudest critics on this,” said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “There’s no doubt that Penn State people hungry for a proactive response will be satisfied.”
“The action clearly has political ramifications,” Borick said. “Everything that happens around this issue is political.”
That lesson is not lost on Kane, a former Lackawanna County prosecutor who ran on a pledge to investigate why it took state prosecutors nearly three years – a period mostly under Corbett’s watch – to charge Sandusky.
In her first campaign, she attracted more than 3.1 million votes – exceeding every other candidate on the Pennsylvania ballot, including President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.
Terry Madonna, a pollster at Lancaster’s Franklin & Marshall College, said the mere filing of the lawsuit won’t do much to help Corbett, but a clear-cut victory would.
“Results matter,” Madonna said. “If he’s successful in this, I don’t know how it doesn’t help him.”