Corbett’s suit raises questions

January 12, 2013

The reviews for Gov. Tom Corbett’s federal lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association over the sanctions levied against Penn State in the Jerry Sandusky scandal are in. And they’re about as complimentary as the notices that were given to the hapless “Spider-Man” musical that stumbled onto Broadway a couple of years ago.

“Grandstanding.” “Shamelessly opportunistic.” “Brazenly misguided.” Not exactly blurbs that Corbett would like to see as he passes the halfway point of his term and before a re-election fight that, if current trends hold, promises to be of the knock-down-drag-out variety.

Announced Jan. 2, just as everyone was contemplating taking down their Christmas decorations, the suit argues that the NCAA sanctions levied against the Penn State football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal– a $60 million fine, four-year bowl and scholarship bans and the erasure of all victories from 1998 to 2011 – was excessive.

Is Corbett’s suit against the NCAA a pretty obvious political stunt? Sure. It’s won kudos in public-opinion polls, even as Corbett himself suffers from sluggish numbers. And its chances of success are debatable at the very best. Penn State, which is not a party to the suit, accepted the sanctions from college sports’ governing body in July, perhaps relieved that the football program wasn’t suspended. The new university administrators were also eager to show contrition for the sins committed by the likes of Sandusky, Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier. Even Corbett himself characterized the NCAA sanctions as “part of (the) corrective process.” Anyone could reasonably argue that, hey, it’s too late now for second thoughts.

And the backbone of Corbett’s suit, that the probable degradation of the Nittany Lions for several years has hammered businesses in State College and around the commonwealth, is fairly weak. The blue-and-white-bedecked hordes still descended on Happy Valley in considerable numbers in the fall, with only a slight decrease in the number of people filling the seats at Beaver Stadium. It stands to reason, even without the NCAA disciplinary action, that some fans would be less inclined to wholeheartedly embrace the football program after the transgressions that the Sandusky scandal brought to light.

But, despite all these caveats, Corbett’s suit does raise a valuable question: Who should be punished for crimes committed by others, and how steep should that punishment be?

The criminal justice system has, of course, dealt with Sandusky, and is gearing up to deal with Spanier, the former university president, as well as former Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Vice President Gary Schultz. Death claimed Paterno before any charges could be brought, but his legacy is now hopelessly stained.

Few would also cavil about the need for some kind of punishment to be administered to the program. The NCAA argument that the football-uber-alles mentality at Penn State helped facilitate Sandusky’s crimes has merit. But should players who were in diapers when Sandusky retired as the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator see their own potential curtailed? And what about those 13 years worth of wins that have been wiped off the books as if they never happened – is it fair that what happened on the field then counts for nothing now as a result of the horrors that happened elsewhere?

The NCAA called the federal lawsuit “an affront to all of the victims in this tragedy.” But an attorney for one of Sandusky’s victims told the Associated Press that the victim “was particularly upset the sanctions were so broad that they impacted people who had absolutely nothing to do with the abuse or the failure to properly report the abuse.”

Corbett’s suit may have questionable validity on legal grounds, but it’s also an action that defies an easy thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Some of the questions it raises deserve thoughtful consideration.



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