STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The NCAA imposed landmark sanctions against Penn State over the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal in a cynical ploy to weaken the university and enhance its own dismal reputation, Pennsylvania's governor claims in an unprecedented federal antitrust lawsuit against college sports' governing body.
Gov. Tom Corbett said the NCAA veered dramatically from its own disciplinary rules and procedures when it decreed last summer that Penn State would pay a $60 million fine, and the football team would suffer a four-year postseason ban and a dramatic reduction in the number of athletic scholarships it could offer.
Corbett wants a federal judge to throw out the sanctions, saying they have harmed students, business owners and others who had nothing to do with the former assistant football coach's crimes against children.
"A handful of top NCAA officials simply inserted themselves into an issue they had no authority to police under their own bylaws and one that was clearly being handled by the justice system," Corbett told a news conference on Wednesday.
In a statement, the NCAA said the lawsuit has no merit and called it an "affront" to Sandusky's victims.
Penn State said it had no role in the lawsuit. In fact, it agreed not to sue as part of a deal with the NCAA to accept the sanctions, imposed last July after an investigation found that coach Joe Paterno and other top officials covered up sexual-abuse allegations against Sandusky, a former member of Paterno's staff, for more than a decade in order to shield the university from bad publicity.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday represents an about-face for Corbett. Six months ago, he encouraged Penn State to "accept the serious penalties" imposed by the NCAA.
The deal was highly unpopular with many fans, students and alumni. Corbett, who is up for re-election next year, deflected a question about whether his response has helped or hurt him politically.
"We're not going to get into the politics of this," he said.
Corbett, who appeared on national TV and Pennsylvania talk-radio shows in the state's two largest cities Thursday morning, defended his change of heart.
In an interview on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, Corbett said he changed his mind after concluding that top NCAA officials had bypassed internal committees set up specifically to review and impose sanctions.
"My thought process at the time was, well, if you belong to an association, you have to play by the rules of the association," the governor said. "We looked at the rules of the association and we think that the association didn't play by the rules."
Corbett, a member of the Penn State board of trustees by virtue of his office, said he waited until now to sue over because he wanted to thoroughly research the legal issues and avoid interfering with the football season.
The state's lawsuit alleges the NCAA violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits agreements that restrain interstate commerce. It claims the NCAA "cynically and hypocritically exploited the tragedy" in order to "gain leverage in the court of public opinion, boost the reputation and power of the NCAA's president, enhance the competitive position of certain NCAA members, and weaken a fellow competitor."
The NCAA punished Penn State "without citing a single concrete NCAA rule that Penn State has broken, for conduct that in no way compromised the NCAA's mission of fair competition, and with a complete disregard for the NCAA's own enforcement procedures," the suit added.
Legal experts called it an unusual case whose outcome is difficult to predict.
Howard Langer, a Philadelphia-based attorney specializing in antitrust law, said the state must show the NCAA acted in a way that hurt competition and inflicted the "type of injury that antitrust laws were intended to remedy."
The NCAA has faced antitrust litigation before, with mixed results. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA's exclusive control over televised college football games. And in 1998, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that said the NCAA's salary cap for some assistant coaches was unlawful price-fixing.
But federal courts have consistently rejected antitrust challenges to NCAA rules and enforcement actions designed to preserve competitive balance, academic integrity and amateurism in college athletics.
In this case, the courts might not be as sympathetic to the NCAA, said Matthew Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee.
"It's difficult to justify the sanctions as necessary to protect the amateur nature of college sports, preserve competitive balance or maintain academic integrity," he said.
Joseph Bauer, an antitrust expert at the University of Notre Dame law school, said of Corbett's line of reasoning: "I don't think it's an easy claim for them to make, but it's certainly a viable claim."
Sandusky, 68, was convicted in June of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period, some of them on Penn State's campus. He is a serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence.
Michael Boni, a lawyer for one of the victims, said he does not consider the lawsuit an affront. But he said he hopes Corbett takes a leading role in pushing for changes to state child-abuse laws.
"I really question who he's concerned about in this state," Boni said.
Corbett, a Republican, said his office did not coordinate its legal strategy with state Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, who is scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 15. Instead, the current attorney general, Linda Kelly — a Corbett appointee — granted the governor authority to pursue the matter.
Kane, a Democrat, ran on a vow to investigate why it took prosecutors nearly three years to charge Sandusky. Corbett was attorney general when his office took over the case in 2009.
Kane had no comment on the lawsuit because she was not consulted about it by Corbett's office.
Paterno's family members said in a statement that they were encouraged by the lawsuit. Corbett "now realizes, as do many others, that there was an inexcusable rush to judgment," they said.
The NCAA erased 14 years of victories under Paterno, who was fired when the scandal broke in 2011 and died of lung cancer a short time later.
An alumni group, Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, applauded the lawsuit but said Corbett should have asked questions when the NCAA agreement was made.
"If he disapproved of the terms of the NCAA consent decree, or if he thought there was something illegal about them, why didn't he exercise his duty to act long before now?" the group said.