Joe Paterno's Family Is Right to Sue the NCAA

But they're wrong to seek absolution for the disgraced Penn State football coach.
paterno suit 650 ap.jpg
AP Photo/Jim Prisching

The attempted rehabilitation of Joe Paterno's reputation began last summer with the publication of Joe Posnanski's Paterno and is now in full swing. The latest volley in the PR campaign came this week on NBC Sports Network, when Bob Costas hosted Paterno family representatives to talk about the latest legal action to result from the scandal that unfolded in State College nearly two years ago.

The Paterno family—as well as some Penn State board of trustee members, faculty, former players, and former coaches—have filed a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the harsh penalties the NCAA placed on Penn State: $60 million in fines, a four-year ban on postseason bowls, severe scholarship cuts, and the removal from the record book of all of Paterno's victories since 1998. The suit, which follows the antitrust action against the NCAA filed by Gov. Tom Corbett in January, also seeks monetary damages that, according to the Paterno estate, will be donated to charity.

These lawsuits against the NCAA may very well succeed, and sports fans all over the country should join Penn State supporters in hoping that they do. For the past few decades, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has crept closer and closer to declaring itself a de facto lawmaking body. With its enormous financial and legal clout, it already controls the earning power of thousands of collegiate athletes—a situation that's problematic for a whole host of reasons.

NCAA head Mark Emmerts no doubt saw in the Jerry Sandusky child-sex-abuse scandal a chance for his organization to jump in, make a fast $60 million, and tighten its stranglehold on collegiate sports—all the while taking the high moral ground and looking as if the association only had the victims' interests at heart.

Leaving aside the obvious point—that the NCAA's sanctions punish a generation of students, athletes, and faculty, most of whom had no connections with the scandal or even the football program—there is a larger problem. Where did the NCAA get the power to place itself into the forefront of this issue? What legal authority does it have to hand down such punishments?

The answer: none. Neither Penn State nor any of 1,281 schools and associations that make up the organization's membership granted the NCAA such power. And there are no precedents for any such actions by the NCAA. To pull off this stunt, the organization is counting on the likelihood that a stunned and saddened Penn State won't have the will or resources to fight back.

In this, I think the NCAA is wrong. Though the university is wisely not party to either of the suits, there are enough trustees, coaches, and football players who are plaintiffs in family's suit to ensure Penn State wins resoundingly if the NCAA loses.

The Paterno family and friends, though, have a second agenda: discrediting of the Freeh Report, upon which the NCAA based its punitive actions. Penn State commissioned Louis Freeh, a former FBI director, to investigate and report on the Sandusky scandal, but the Paterno family is unhappy with his conclusions and is now openly challenging them. Their stated goal is to "Redress the NCAA's 100 percent adoption of the Freeh Report and imposition of a binding consent decree against Penn State University."

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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