While Corbett's Penn State lawsuit offers new wrinkles to questions that courts have considered in the past, many legal experts - including several who have previously faced off against the NCAA in court - agree that building a successful antitrust case could be difficult.
"Historically, there has been some measure of deference that the courts have given to the NCAA, given its mission of promoting amateurism in sports," said Joseph P. Bauer, an antitrust expert at Notre Dame Law School. "The governor's case could be viable, but it's not an easy one."
Corbett's suit, filed in a federal court in Harrisburg, asks a judge to throw out sanctions imposed against Penn State as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
The punishment - which include a $60 million fine, a four-year ban on postseason play, and the voiding of the results of 14 football seasons - was designed to weaken the university's standing among its competitors and "cynically and hypocritically exploited the tragedy" surrounding the former assistant football coach's arrest, the governor said in court filings.
Sandusky, 68, is serving a sentence of at least 30 years for molesting 10 boys. Three former Penn State administrators await trial on charges they covered up allegations of abuse.
The NCAA has dismissed Corbett's suit as meritless.
The organization is unique among the nation's major sports leagues in its exposure to antitrust claims.
Federal law protects the NFL from similar challenges. Leagues governing other professional sports negotiate protection from such suits in their collective-bargaining agreements.
Because college athletes don't participate in contract negotiations, however, the NCAA has no such protection and has often found itself the target of accusations of anticompetitive business practices.
Regents at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia took the NCAA to court in the early 1980s in a dispute over TV broadcast rights for football games. At the time, the NCAA limited the number of times teams could appear on television per season in an attempt to control live attendance.
But the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the universities, finding that by barring colleges from negotiating their own TV contracts, the NCAA had interfered in a competitive market.
That 1984 ruling has formed the backbone for the hundreds of antitrust cases filed since then over issues ranging from recruiting violations to licensing of player images or compensation for student athletes. Only a handful have proven successful.
"Where the NCAA has lost antitrust cases are when it has strayed into matters that don't directly relate to its core mission: promoting fair competition between teams, promoting amateurism in sports, or promoting academics," said John Infante, a former compliance director at Colorado State University and author of BylawBlog, a site dedicated to NCAA regulations.
In the Oklahoma case, limiting the supply of football games broadcast on TV had little to do with any of those three core planks of its mission, he said.
But most antitrust claims challenging the NCAA in its direct-oversight role tend to fall short.
Courts rejected a lawsuit brought by fans of Southern Methodist University's football team in 1988 after the NCAA shut down the college's football team for payments made to players from a booster-supported slush fund.
Though fans argued the lack of a football season affected the local economy and unfairly damaged the team's future prospects, the courts ultimately found that NCAA rules banning player compensation did more to promote fair competition than the punishment did to inhibit it.
Infante compares the Southern Methodist University case to the type of argument Corbett is pursuing in his suit filed last week.
However, the unique circumstances surrounding the Penn State sanctions could make a difference in court, he said.
In announcing the punishments in July, NCAA president Mark Emmert acknowledged the departure they represented from the process the organization typically takes to punish rule breakers.
The NCAA bypassed its own procedures for investigating infractions and relied largely on an outside investigation conducted by former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh in assessing the university's guilt in the Sandusky scandal. Emmert directly negotiated the punishment package with Penn State himself.
Emmert justified the move at a July news conference, arguing that "the circumstances involved in the Penn State matter are . . . unlike any matter encountered by the NCAA in the past."
Corbett, as he said upon filing his suit last week, isn't buying that explanation.
"This was a criminal matter and not a violation of NCAA rules," he said. "The NCAA had no authority to act."
Contact Jeremy Roebuck
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