Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett's abrupt reversal on Wednesday to challenge the painful NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State's football program came as a political head-scratcher to many outside observers.
But the decision likely has as much to do with the governor’s attempt to restore his standing with Pennsylvania voters ahead of his 2014 reelection bid as with the intricacies of sports law.
In the wake of the scandal that roiled the university in 2011 and led to the dismissal of iconic head football coach Joe Paterno and the criminal conviction of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for child sexual abuse, Corbett, a Republican, was roundly lampooned by critics on all sides for his handling of the case.
There were those who said he didn’t act quickly enough, motivated by the desire to appease Penn State’s powerful fan base. During Corbett’s tenure as attorney general, from 2004 to 2010, it took state prosecutors three years to charge and arrest Sandusky. That fact alone became a major campaign theme for Democratic Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, who won statewide election in November promising a probe into why the investigation took so long and criticizing Corbett’s conduct.
There is also lingering discontent from a sizable contingency of Penn State and Paterno loyalists who believe the institution, the football program, and the state have been unjustly scapegoated for the decidedly vile actions of a few and that Corbett is partly to blame.
With Corbett's approval ratings languishing in the 30 percent range and the Penn State scandal one of the major albatrosses hanging around his neck, detractors view his decision to file a federal lawsuit contesting the NCAA sanctions as a last-ditch attempt to rehabilitate his image in a state where the university still holds considerable cultural currency.
“This issue is undoubtedly been one that has become problematic for him, and there’s probably a hope in his camp that they can move this issue from one that is clearly a liability to one that they might actually get some positive public reaction to,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. “The governor is getting out in front and becoming, in some ways, a voice for the critics of the sanctions.”
When the NCAA first handed down the unprecedented penalties, Corbett and Penn State accepted them quietly.
“We have taken a monster off the streets, and while we will never be able to repair the injury done to these children, we must repair the damage to this university,” Corbett said in July when the measures were initially announced. “Part of that corrective process is to accept the serious penalties imposed today by the NCAA on Penn State University and its football program.”
Fast-forward to Wednesday, and his tune had changed. “They used Penn State’s tarnished public image as an opportunity to force the university to endure harsh, unjustified, and unprecedented punishments,” Corbett said in a press conference Wednesday. “This was a criminal matter, not a violation of NCAA rules.”
Political observers in Pennsylvania say the case isn’t viewed as nearly as black and white in the state as it is nationally. While there is near-universal support for the criminal investigation and indictment of Penn State officials involved, the NCAA sanctions—including a four-year bowl-game ban, reduced football scholarships, and the forfeiture of 112 games won under Paterno’s reign, in addition to a $60 million fine—are deeply unpopular among voters.
“When you look at [the NCAA sanctions] from the outside, you think this is common sense. When you think about it internally, you think what does this have to do with the team? And what does it have to do with the players? This was a criminal case involving the coaches and the administrators,” said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College. “Pennsylvanians tend to view this quite differently.”
“This is less about the Sandusky affair itself and what’s right for the taxpayers of Pennsylvania,” added Pennsylvania Republican strategist Ray Zaborney, noting the economic ramifications in the state as a result of the NCAA sanctions. “He believes it’s the right thing to do.”
For now, nonetheless, Corbett’s 2014 prospects look dicey, whether the lawsuit is successful or not.
Democrats in Harrisburg are salivating over the prospect of unseating a governor for the first time since the 1970s, with state government veteran John Hanger already tossing his hat in the ring and questioning the motives behind Corbett’s NCAA lawsuit. Republican Bruce Castor, a lawyer who has said he is actively mulling a primary challenge, also piled on, saying that the move “smacks of political gamesmanship.”
And that leaves out all the sports columnists far and wide, who have, among other things, called the lawsuit a “grotesque act of political grandstanding”—a fact not lost on the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania which quickly blasted out the critiques in a Thursday press release.
With the scandal still a sensitive subject for many, Pennsylvania political analysts too said the move is far from a slam dunk and is fraught with risk.
“It’s the most daring and in some ways controversial proposal or action that this governor has ever taken,” Madonna said.