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Tom Corbett's Misguided Yet Worthwhile Lawsuit Against the NCAA

By Jonathan Mahler
January 04, 2013 3:04 PM EST

There’s no denying that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's lawsuit against the NCAA over its sanctions against Penn State University is shamelessly opportunistic and fundamentally compromised. It is also, as the New York Times says today, “brazenly misguided,” “short-sighted” and “foolhardy.” As a political play -- which it clearly is -- it seems certain to backfire.

It also happens to be worthwhile.

Corbett, who sits on the university's board of trustees, was Pennsylvania’s attorney general when the state first started its investigation into former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky in 2009. He was sworn in as governor two years later. Not only was Sandusky still a free man, Corbett had, in the interim, accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from unsuspecting members of the board of Sandusky’s charity, Second Mile.

Corbett didn’t object when the NCAA sanctions -- bowl bans, scholarship cuts, vacated wins, a $60 million fine -- were handed down last summer. In fact, he called them part of the “corrective process.” Now, with the 2014 election looming, Corbett probably figures he can boost his popularity by coming to the defense of his state’s most revered institution: the Nittany Lions football team.

It’s a craven move, and from a political perspective, it’s not going to work. All the suit is really going to do is invite moral scorn for its apparent attempt to exonerate an institution that sheltered a man who sexually abused children -- while also reminding Pennsylvania voters of the scandal and their incumbent governor’s mishandling of it.

Yet when you strip away the misguided political motivations, the suit contains, at its core, an important and persuasive argument: The NCAA exists, by its own definition, to advance the cause of “fair competition” among its members, while promoting the ideal of the so-called student-athlete. It has the authority to discipline schools that act in violation of those goals. Period.

The NCAA knows this. It said as much in its consent decree with Penn State, explaining that the Sandusky scandal represented an extraordinary situation that called for extraordinary measures. The NCAA justified its overreach by saying it was necessary to address a “culture” that exalted the football program to a position of “deference” at Penn State.

The NCAA was absolutely right about that “culture,” which owes its existence in part to the NCAA itself, which has enabled the arms race of athletic facilities, stadiums and dormitories; the soaring pay of college coaches; and multimillion-dollar apparel and TV contracts.

The messenger may deserve all of the scorn being heaped on him, but the message -- that the NCAA has no business punishing an institution for a situation it helped create -- shouldn’t be ignored.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.

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