Governor Tom Corbett and the state of Pennsylvania have sued the National Collegiate Athletic Association over sanctions it issued against Penn State University and its football program in response to the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.

At a press conference Wednesday in State College, Corbett told reporters the federal antitrust action would address what he called “unlawful and overreaching” sanctions issued to the university, which the lawsuit said would weaken an “important economic engine” for the state in Penn State football, affecting Pennsylvanians along the way.

The complaint in Commonwealth v. National Collegiate Athletic Association claims the NCAA forced the university to agree to the sanctions back in July, thereby allowing it to avoid the so-called “death penalty” — a complete ban from a school’s participation in a given sport for a given time. Those sanctions included a $60 million fine, a four-year ban on postseason play, a dropoff in scholarships, and the vacating of seasons worth of victories for the university’s storied football program.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would prevent the NCAA from imposing those penalties. It also asked for the court to rule the sanctions a violation of the Sherman Act, for the state’s court costs, and for other relief the court may see fit.

In a 43-page complaint filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Corbett accused the NCAA of levying “unprecedented” penalties in order to boost its own reputation and enhance competitor schools’ positioning, while weakening that of Penn State.

The lawsuit claims the NCAA and its president, Mark A. Emmert, forced Penn State to waive its due process rights and accept the penalties through a consent decree to avert a four-year death penalty.

This came even though, as the suit claims, there was no recognition of a violation of any NCAA rule. The court filing pointed to other instances across the country in which criminal conduct that took place implicated a school’s athletic program, but the NCAA “did little, if anything, about it.”

“While what occurred at Penn State was both criminal and heinous, it is unclear, at best, that the conduct violated any of the rules as written in the NCAA’s voluminous rulebook and policed by its enforcement staff,” the complaint said. “Consequently, the NCAA’s discipline of Penn State is an unprecedented approach that dramatically broadens the scope of punishable offenses, but, as Dr. Emmert has suggested, may not be used again for years, if ever.”

The lawsuit also contested the NCAA’s position that the sanctions would change Penn State’s “culture,” a word used often in attempting to explain how the scandal unfolded for years without charges being brought against Sandusky and several university administrators implicated in its fallout. The complaint said the NCAA, rather, has long contributed to the same culture it condemned the school for condoning, noting that premier football schools receive “deference” and “reverence” through lucrative television and apparel contracts.

At the press conference, Corbett said the university was not invited to join the lawsuit.

Corbett, along with James D. Schultz, the state’s general counsel, said the lawsuit would ask the court to throw out all of the sanctions, including the fine. If the state prevails, the $60 million would go to organizations that help victims of child abuse, Corbett said.

“These sanctions did not punish Sandusky, nor did they punish the others who have been criminally charged,” Corbett said.

Rather, the NCAA, in what Corbett said was a rushed decision that violated its own bylaws, punished past, present and future students and athletes, local businesses in the Penn State community, and the citizens of Pennsylvania.

Schultz noted Wednesday that typical NCAA penalties follow allegations of cheating on the field, academic infractions that impact eligibility and other sports-related issues. The Sandusky scandal is a criminal matter, Schultz said, and those implicated should be and have been tried in criminal court.

Corbett said the lawsuit comes after research to ensure its legal foundation and after the school’s football season came to a close, so as not to interrupt. Corbett added he did not want to rush the suit and “make the same mistake” the NCAA did in hurriedly imposing the sanctions. He and Schultz noted the university did not receive a fair hearing before the punishments were imposed.

Following the press conference, the NCAA responded with a statement on its website.

“We are disappointed by the governor’s action today,” said Donald M. Remy, the NCAA’s executive vice president and general counsel. “Not only does this forthcoming lawsuit appear to be without merit, it is an affront to all of the victims in this tragedy — lives that were destroyed by the criminal actions of Jerry Sandusky.”

“While the innocence that was stolen can never be restored, Penn State has accepted the consequences for its role and the role of its employees and is moving forward,” the statement said. “Today’s announcement by the governor is a setback to the university’s efforts.”

Facing questions from reporters, Schultz said the timing of the lawsuit had nothing to do with the impending turnover in the state’s Attorney General’s Office. Kathleen Kane is set on January 15 to replace Linda Kelly, a Corbett appointee for attorney general when Corbett left the post, as attorney general.

Kelly, under the Commonwealth Attorneys Act, signed off on the lawsuit, according to the complaint.

A spokesperson for Kane offered this statement from the attorney general to-be: “As I was not consulted or briefed beforehand on the commonwealth’s action against the NCAA, I must reserve comment until I have had an opportunity to review the case filing and receive a full briefing on the matter.”

Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sex-abuse in June. Other administrators, including the university’s former president, athletic director and vice president of business and finance, have been criminally charged in the scandal’s fallout.

After initial charges against Sandusky and the university officials were made public, the university hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to do a complete investigation of the university’s conduct. What ensued was the Freeh report, which implicated Sandusky, the other charged officials, and the university’s former head coach, Joe Paterno, who died in January 2012.

On Wednesday, Corbett downplayed that report as “incomplete,” noting the university’s board of trustees has not adopted its findings.

Schultz and Jarad W. Handelman of the Office of the General Counsel, along with two Cozen O’Connor attorneys from the firm’s Washington office, Melissa H. Maxman and Ronald F. Wick, are listed on the complaint.

As of press time, no defense counsel was listed on the docket.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Chief Judge Yvette Kane.

Ben Present can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or bpresent@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @BPresentTLI. •