In July, after the NCAA swung its sledgehammer and imposed sanctions that turned the Penn State football program into a bunch of porcelain shards, we argued that the school actually had a good antitrust case against the NCAA if it wanted to bring a lawsuit. Two leading sports law experts told us that the NCAA's legal authority to punish its member institutions didn't extend as far as the association thought it did. Only Penn State's acquiescence to the punishments made them legal.
But it was Penn State president Rodney Erickson who agreed to the sanctions, and he has a boss: Governor Tom Corbett. In a press conference later today, Corbett will announce that Pennsylvania is suing the NCAA over the sanctions in federal court. Penn State reportedly has no involvement with the lawsuit; the school has been overruled.
The Associated Press almost says but doesn't say that the suit will have something to do with the NCAA's nationwide disbursement of Penn State's $60 million fine. Pennsylvania legislators had hoped the money, to fight child abuse, would be spent in the state. But Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel, who broke the story, says that the suit would likely "transcend" that issue. We anticipate a similar transcendence. That's a political matter, one that could probably be fixed through negotiation.
It's the large-scale competitive sanctions against Penn State, though, which constitute a potential overstepping of the NCAA's powers. The state could argue that, 2012 success aside, Penn State's scholarship cuts, fine, and bowl bans make it more difficult for the university to recruit students, donors, and faculty. The courts might construe that as an illegal restraint of trade—the Supreme Court ruled in NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma that the association can't regulate big business.
All that said, the complication lingering near Pennsylvania's case is the same one that could have thwarted a potential Penn State case: Do jurists really want to strike down sanctions—however excessive and opportunist—that nominally punish child abuse and the coverup thereof? The NCAA is nothing if not supremely canny.