Friday, January 11, 2013

Corbett on the Penn State issue

I was part of a group of newspaper editors invited to the Governor’s Mansion Thursday to discuss his upcoming budget and looming pension crisis. You can find out how that went here.

But there was something else I was dying to ask him about. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out what.

Unless you’ve been out of the country or under a rock, you know that the governor has decided to wade back into the Jerry Sansusky morass. And he’s taking a ton of heat for his decision to file a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA for those hefty sanctions they slapped on Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

One of the biggest bones of contention is the fact that when the sanctions were announced back in July, Corbett, who as governor is a member of the school’s board of trustees, urged them to accept the penalty as a “corrective measure.” Now, however, he's castigating the NCAA as not “playing by the rules,” in particular their own rules and procedures, piling on Penn State, and using the Nittany Lions to prop up their own sagging reputation as the overseer of big-time college athletics.

So I asked him straight out what happened during those six months and when he first started to have a change of heart.

To his credit he never blinked an eye.

Corbett explained once again that when he made his statement in July that Penn State should accept the sanctions, that was based on the evidence he had at the time.

The governor is a former U.S. Attorney and state Attorney General. He still approaches his job like a prosecutor. He said that as he gathered more “facts,” he started to realize that the NCAA didn’t follow the rules. In fact they didn’t follow their own procedures, according to the governor.

He realizes he faces an uphill fight in his war with the NCAA, and he is well aware of the beating he’s taking in the media, this newspaper included, with the prominent exception of my columnist Gil Spencer, who is firmly in the governor’s corner.

When I asked him if he was surprised at how strong the backlash has been, he quickly responded, “No.”

He’s also not buying those who make the argument that this only proves that nothing has been learned from the entire Penn State incident, that this is emblematic of the Penn State culture and the way big-time football is exalted in Happy Valley.

“You have to take the emotion out of it,” Corbett said. “I looked at all the facts.”

Today there is word that newly elected Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane is ready to make good on her campaign pledge to review Corbett’s handling of the Sandusky case when he was sitting in that seat.

Aside from the timing of the lawsuit and his obvious flip-flop on the sanctions, there are still a lot of people out there who believe Corbett put the Sandusky matter on the back burner while he pushed ahead with the Bonusgate political corruption case. They believe that the Republican gubernatorial candidate was not exactly eager to take down Penn State and Joe Paterno. Now, they believe he’s once again playing politics by seeking to prop up his flagging approval ratings by defending the honor of Penn State against the NCAA.

Corbett doesn’t want to hear it.

“I didn’t delay anything,” Corbett said of the original investigation. “I’m a prosecutor, and I had to build the case,” the governor said.

He really only asks one thing of his detractors. He wants them to read the 43-page complaint against the NCAA.

“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “They didn’t have jurisdiction to do what they did.”

So far polls show Pennsylvanians like the idea of the lawsuit against the NCAA. They’re not quite as ready to do backflips over the job Corbett is doing as governor.

With Kane set to take office and weigh in on Corbett's handling of the affair, the Sandusky case isn’t going away anytime soon.

Politically, Gov. Tom Corbett has decided to roll the dice with his lawsuit. If he wins, and the case goes to trial, it could bolster his hopes for a second term. If it gets tossed out, it’s only going to make his political problems worse.

I get the feeling Corbett doesn’t especially care about that. He doesn't think this is about politics.  He thinks he’s doing the right thing. He thinks the NCAA overstepped its bounds, didn’t follow its own rules, and “piled on” Penn State.

And he doesn’t care how it looks.


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