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Tom Corbett: Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

Gov. Tom Corbett's involvement in the Penn State child rape scandal continues to be controversial

By G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young

It was a shocker. And it grabbed headlines, not just in Pennsylvania butacross the nation. Governor Tom Corbett in an abrupt turnabout is suing the NCAA for sanctions imposed on Penn State University in the notorious Sandusky scandal.

But how should we interpret Corbett's now widely reported intentions? Are they the brilliant political strategy of a governor determined to right a wrong and defend his state against the bullying tactics of an out of control regulatory body? Or are they the desperate flailing of an embattled governor feverishly trying to rescue his own career from a political defeat some predict?

What do you think of Corbett's NCAA lawsuit? Tell us in the comments section below.

Certainly many political observers see cynical political calculations
working here, a none too subtle attempt by an unpopular governor to shore up his political strength in advance of a 2014 re-election certain to be challenging for him. A chorus of critics have characterized the planned suit as "frivolous," "grandstanding," "a disgrace," and "laughable."

Moreover, Corbett's own previous involvement in the case is controversial. Critics have long accused him of dragging his feet as attorney general in the early Sandusky investigation to benefit his gubernatorial candidacy. Then last July after the NCAA sanctions were announced, he publicly supported them, calling them necessary "corrective actions" for Penn State.

Corbett's new position puts him squarely on both sides of the issue, leaving little doubt that political calculations are in play. Beyond dispute, the governor's anemic approval ratings stem in part from his handling of the prosecution and his later role as an ex officio member of the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Statewide polls have consistently shown high disapproval ratings for Corbett's management of the case, as well as deep unpopularity for the NCAA sanctions themselves. According to a September F&M poll only one in six (17%) registered voters believe Governor Corbett did an excellent or good job of investigating the Sandusky case when he was the attorney general compared to nearly two in three (65%) who think he did a fair or poor job.

But there is another side to consider. In the same poll a clear majority of voters (54%) believe the NCAA sanctions imposed are unfair. Pennsylvanian's agree with the governor that the NCAA blatantly overstepped its bounds, ignored its own procedures and denied Penn State due process. Legal observers disagree in evaluating the suit, some concluding it will be a hard case to win, while others believe there are significant antitrust issues raised in Corbett's arguments.

Surely, Corbett's arguments are familiar since they comprise many of the same criticisms many Pennsylvanians have leveled at the NCAA sanctions since last year. Corbett's 43 page lawsuit filed in the U S District Court charges that:

. The NCAA is a "trade organization" that overstepped its authority
involving itself in a criminal case. In imposing sanctions on Penn State the NCAA ignored its own procedures and guidelines.
. NCAA virtually blackmailed Penn State into accepting the sanctions
without due process by threatening to suspend the football program
permanently (the "death penalty").
. The NCAA "has punished Penn State without citing a single concrete NCAA rule that Penn State has broken.and with a complete disregard for the NCAA's own enforcement procedures."
. The NCAA penalties have imposed "irreparable damage on Pennsylvania, on its businesses and reputation, and on the Penn State football team. 

Whether one endorses these arguments or not, many fair minded people will agree that most of them should have been aired when sanctions were imposed. Corbett's law suit, better late than never, will do that.

The stakes for Corbett in this bold strategy are immense. In going after the sanctions and the NCAA, he is adopting a politically popular policy. At the same time he risks the credible criticism that he is a hypocritical politician who initially supported the NCAA actions as necessary "corrective actions," but now is changing course because he is in political trouble. Furthermore, suing the NCAA puts the case squarely into the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, a strategy with some significant plusses and minuses for him.

All in all, Corbett's action seems to be an instance of doing the right
thing for the wrong reason. In defending the state's rights against what many believe to be an out of control trade group, Corbett is exercising the leadership expected of the state's chief executive. But he is doing it belatedly and perhaps reluctantly. For Pennsylvanians, a measured review of the correctness and proportionality of the NCAA sanctions is a necessary, if painful, exercise. For Pennsylvania's governor it may also be a necessary,
if painful, exercise - and one fraught with potential political peril.

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Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly, and previous columns can be viewed at http://politics.fandm.edu. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2013 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.

Conan Kurtz January 16, 2013 at 10:55 PM
I am also a big Paterno supporter going back to 1960. I would hope we would have broader minds than to vote or not vote for a Governor based on a suggestion unrelated to role as GOVERNOR. He did not vote to fire JoePa. And if you want to get technical, Joe beat one Top Ten team in his last ten years. I don't call that winning games and we all know what it is called.
victor curll January 17, 2013 at 01:12 AM
gov flip flop, penn state should take punishment then sues ncaa?
Rich January 17, 2013 at 03:30 PM
Let's see a single homosexuals male can now adopt children with multiple sexual partners frequenting the home - but they cannot have sex with an 18 student boy in college. And when convicted of that behavior and the school gets sactioned for allowing it to go on for years, then the govenor says that is not fair. Which is it?
Ronald Lewis January 19, 2013 at 01:31 AM
I agree with Corbett (did I just say that ? ) that the NCAA has now established itself as the morality police for every member college and university. However, even as a loyal PSU alum, I also believe that Corbett's failure to pursue Sandusky for his child abuse transgressions and to bring this suit are both examples of catering to the PSU fan base for their support of his political career.
R. Carl Hart January 22, 2013 at 07:03 PM
This lawsuit is nothing but a chance for him to set his friends/wealthy donors up with a financial windfall. Let's be honest, the primary target of this suit is to prevent the $60 million fine that was imposed, from leaving the state. The NCAA has stipulated the fine go to Non-Profit organizations that plan to use the money for childhood sexual abuse education, prevention and healing. If he succeeds, let's see how many of the organizations that receive money, have ties to Corbett. I know of groups/individuals that have chosen a name and filed for non-profit status in the hopes of getting a slice of the pie. Some of them have not even developed a plan or strategy on how to use the money towards prevention, education or healing. Strangely, these same groups have set the pay scale for their directors.. "cart before the horse"? Imagine a donor friend of Corbett's filing some legal paperwork and choosing a name like "Alum to Prevent CSA" and getting a $1 million dollar grant. This donor will set himself up as the executive director with a salary of $250,000, and then pay his board of directors and advisory committee a stipend of $50,000 each. Guess what, the board members and advisers can serve many non-profit organizations. "You scratch my back..." I know this all sounds like a vivid imagination at work, but seriously, if this lawsuit is won, I hope the authors of this opinion piece will investigate each charity that receives funds for ties to Corbett.

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