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Politically Uncorrected: Tom Corbett: Doing the Right thing for the Wrong Reason

Tom Corbett portrait loresIt was a shocker. And it grabbed headlines, not just in Pennsylvania but across 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?

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. Pennsylvanians 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 lawsuit, 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.


Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner of Michael Young Strategic Research.

6 Responses

  1. Sadly, NCAA punishment almost always effects innocent parties. As a student, I suffered by not being able to attend bowl games my university qualified for when I was an undergrad. We were on probation for various violations (recruiting, spying on opponents, etc) and our coach and his assistants were fired before the sanctions took effect. None of us in the student body had any part in those violations. However, the institution did have to be punished. I don’t know how you separate it.

    On the other hand, I think the degree in which PSU was punished was extreme, when you take into account the small amount of people who were involved in this terrible crime. Certainly, noone can suggest that Penn State fans, students and alumni would ever believe that Sandusky should have been enabled in his crimes, regardless of what may or may not happen to the football program as a result.

    That’s a stark contrast to the attitude of many college football fans who believe that the end justifies the means when it comes to paying off high school coaches and giving the parents of recruits high paying jobs in order to guarantee success.

  2. Two professors?! Only Progressives/Liberals would pay an ounce of attention to the opinions any professor – especially Madonna.

  3. This political move is directly and unquestionably the result of Corbett’s fear of Kathleen Kane coming at him governmentally and Bruce Castor coming at him politically. A pair of prosecutors in a pincer maneuver. Corbett is getting a taste of his own medicine and is wriggling to avoid being squashed. And wasn’t that Castor up here yesterday walking the halls of the Capitol?

  4. @ David
    The NCAA is an Athletic association and has nothing to do with Civil and Criminal Law. They hand out sentences for Coaches and Colleges paying players to play, or doing anything to compromise fairness in their programs that participate in their association.
    Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Penn State, Tom Corbett et cetera, did no such thing.
    In fact, if you honestly think about it, for the NCAA to even stick it’s nose in this and say it should punish somebody for what occured is insulting to the actual levity of the situation.
    To even say that the evil in this scandal has anything to do with something as trivial as a sporting event.. how pretentious.
    Those who were responsible for this scandal have been removed by the university and are being handled by our court system, as they should be.
    Anyone the NCAA affected with their sanctions, 1 have nothing to do with the actual involvement of the scandal, and 2 realistically, aren’t being appropriately punished.
    When’s the last time you thought that the punishment for Sexual Abuse of a Child was “Heavy sanctions from the NCAA?”
    Agreeably with this article, it is one sappy political action (By Corbett) to combat another sappy political action (by the NCAA)
    It should have happened MONTHS ago.

  5. It’s the wrong thing for the wrong reason.

    The NCAA should have just kicked out Penn State. They got off easy.

    Corbett effectively aided and abetted Sandusky by dragging his heels as AG.

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