Pennsylvania lawsuit vs. NCAA could change college sports

Gov. Corbett announces his lawsuit against the NCAA. The case could force some changes in the way the NCAA does business. RALPH WILSON / Associated Press
Gov. Corbett announces his lawsuit against the NCAA. The case could force some changes in the way the NCAA does business. RALPH WILSON / Associated Press
Posted: January 06, 2013

Beyond the political questions involved in the lawsuit Gov. Corbett filed last week against the NCAA (like how is this suit supposed to make him look good politically?) . . .

Beyond the questions of whether the state has standing to file the suit . . .

Beyond resurrecting the shameful misconduct on the part of Penn State officials in the Jerry Sandusky scandal . . .

The college sports world will watch all developments in this suit closely. If this case ever gets to a courtroom, the consequences could go far beyond Happy Valley.

If you can, put aside the optics of the suit - that it's attached to a case involving multiple child rapes. Is there an antitrust case here? Or at least enough of a threat of one that the NCAA could be leveraged into settling, agreeing to let the $60 million in fines be entirely directed to Pennsylvania programs that combat child sexual abuse?

Villanova professor John Doody isn't predicting Corbett's suit would win in the courts - he guesses the opposite. Then again, Doody isn't a law professor. He's a philosophy professor, but he teaches a philosophy of sports course and keeps a very close eye on NCAA matters. He suggests there is reason for the NCAA to be nervous about this suit, simply because of the stakes involved.

"The consequences could alter the landscape of college athletics," Doody said in an e-mail. "If the courts rule in favor of us [remember as citizens of the Commonwealth we are considered to be part of the petition, and our tax dollars will help pay for this filing . . .], and claim the NCAA is in violation of antitrust laws, then that opens the door for the big five football conferences" - he means the Big Ten and the rest of the big leagues - "to split from the NCAA and control their own football factory."

As Doody points out, the powerhouse conferences already keep their own BCS football revenue, but many college observers believe that leagues such as the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference and Pac-12 will look to control basketball revenues as well.

"The NCAA then gets to regulate water polo and volleyball," Doody said in the e-mail.

There is a reason (again, aside from politics) that Cozen O'Connor has been hired instead of state attorneys. Antitrust expertise is the requirement here. If the case hits a courtroom, it may hinge on a paragraph on the 31st page of the 43-page suit.

Citing the Sherman Act, the suit argues: "The NCAA, as an organization of competitors, is prohibited from imposing, and arbitrarily enforcing, rules that bear no reasonable relationship to the NCAA's need for self-regulation for the purpose of denying the benefits of participation to a single competitor, and thereby lessening competition."

A lot of people, including college administrators who are disgusted by Penn State's behavior in the Sandusky scandal, also think the NCAA's failure to follow its own established procedures needs to be examined. If it ever hits a courtroom, this case would do that.

The optics need to be put aside to examine whether there is merit to the case because the optics obviously aren't pretty. Children were raped on a college campus, not enough was done to prevent it, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is bringing up the "market for the sale of college-related apparel." The argument is that the NCAA, in not imposing a death penalty that kept Penn State from playing football for a given period, was trying to keep "collateral damage" to "innocent bystanders" to a minimum, as NCAA president Mark Emmert said.

"Ironically, the consequences of the NCAA's unprecedented actions had precisely the effect that Dr. Emmert allegedly was attempting to avoid," the suit claims.

It is hard to believe Corbett thought he could gain any ground politically by filing this suit since he basically claims he didn't know how the NCAA operated when the harsh penalties were handed down. That doesn't quite sound like a platform of competence. (The New York Times also tore him apart in an editorial on the suit.)

Another issue, however, is whether this suit, if allowed to go forward, may force the NCAA down from its own high horse. That's an uncomfortable proposition for a governing body in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of amateurism.

Count on an attorney asking Emmert this kind of question: "What did you mean as president at Louisiana State when you said, 'Simply put, success in LSU football is essential for the success of Louisiana State University.'?"

That quote is included in the suit. When ESPN's Bob Ley grilled him on it last summer, Emmert responded by talking about graduation rates improving under Nick Saban when he took over LSU.

Like all other aspects of the Sandusky scandal, there is no high ground here. The attorneys won't look for one. They'd dig in the other direction.


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @jensenoffcampus.

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