The validity of the NCAA's landmark consent decree with Penn State was questioned by a Pennsylvania state court Wednesday in a decision that could have far-reaching implications.
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court said the NCAA might not have had the legal right to force Penn State to agree to the decree in 2012 that stopped just short of a death penalty for the football program. That decree resulted from the NCAA's unprecedented involvement in the outcome of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The court made the ruling as motions flew back and forth in the pending Corman vs. NCAA case. Pennsylvania state senator Jake Corman sued the association in January 2013 attempting to keep the $60 million fine that resulted from the decree to be used in state.
Corman alleged that spending any of the money outside the state violates the Pennsylvania constitution. The court upheld the constitutionality of the Endowment Act. The act requires any fine of more than $10 million to be deposited in a state treasury trust fund.
On Wednesday, the Commonwealth Court dismissed the NCAA's challenge of that law that would keep the money in state. In a split decision, a majority of the seven-judge panel questioned the validity of the consent decree.
“ … given the many discrepancies between the consent decree and the NCAA constitution and bylaws, there exists genuine factual disputes,” said Judge Anne Covey in the majority opinion.
She questioned, “whether the NCAA acted in accordance with its constitution and bylaws.”
The court further wrote, “The Consent Decree expressly recognizes the NCAA's questionable involvement in and its dubious authority pertaining to a criminal action against a non-university official [Sandusky] which involved children who were non-university student-athletes.”
In his dissenting opinion, Judge Dan Pellegrini said he was “bewildered” Penn State would enter into agreement with the NCAA on issues that “ordinarily would not be actionable by the NCAA.”
The decree was the foundation of the NCAA's penalties against Penn State in the Sandusky case. The university basically agreed to a series of crippling sanctions facing the real possibility of the football program being shut down by the NCAA.
One of Penn State's lawyers, Gene Marsh, called the situation at the time a “cram-down.”
The school was assessed a four-year bowl ban and scholarship limitations. Some of those scholarships have been restored by the NCAA. In addition, all of Joe Paterno's wins from 1998-2011 were vacated.
The NCAA's penalties were unprecedented for several reasons.
-- The infractions in question were not related to a competitive advantage. Sandusky had left the program years before.
-- They resulted from a criminal case. The NCAA interpreted its constitution to conclude that Penn State violated the constitution's "fundamental values" clause.
-- Players who had nothing to do with case were penalized. In a famous show of faith, senior Mike Mauti and several other players pledged loyalty to the program two days after the penalties were announced.
-- Players were allowed to transfer immediately, setting off a set of unintended consequences. Players complained of coaches from interested schools lurking in the parking lot outside the football facility.
-- Penn State was not a repeat offender of NCAA bylaws, which automatically triggers the possibility of a death penalty. In fact, Penn State had been one of two schools to win national championships in the wire service era (since 1936) never to commit a major violation in football. BYU is the other.
Also on Wednesday, the court said Penn State must become part of the Corman lawsuit against the NCAA. The court is seeking more information about the validity of the consent decree.