The surviving family of longtime Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, along with several former Penn State football players and members of the university board of trustees have sued the NCAA over sanctions imposed because of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas and came amid speculation that the Paterno family would take legal action to challenge a consent decree Penn State agreed to in order to avoid the so-called "death penalty" — a complete ban from a school’s participation in a given sport for a given time. The plaintiffs argue the National Collegiate Athletic Association coerced the university to agree to the consent decree, improperly used the findings of the Freeh report against the school’s football program, a report the lawsuit said was flawed to begin with, and tarnished the reputation of Paterno, his son, Jay Paterno, and others in the Penn State football and university community.
Penn State is not named in the lawsuit. Louis Freeh, the former FBI director whose law firm conducted an internal investigation on behalf of Penn State following the criminal allegations against Sandusky, is not a defendant.
The sanctions imposed under the decree include a $60 million fine levied against the football program, a four-year ban on post-season play, a dropoff in scholarships, and the vacating of seasons worth of victories for the university’s storied football program in games coached by Joe Paterno, who died not long after being fired in the wake of the scandal.
"In the course of the events that gave rise to this lawsuit, defendants engaged in malicious, unjustified, and unlawful acts, including penalizing and irreparably harming plaintiffs for criminal conduct committed by a former assistant football coach," the 40-page complaint said. "But the criminal conduct, which occurred in 1998 and 2001, was not an athletics issue properly regulated by the NCAA. Defendants’ actions far exceeded the scope of the NCAA’s authority and were taken in knowing and reckless disregard of plaintiffs’ rights."
Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator at the center of the scandal, was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of child sex abuse last June.
The lawsuit, which follows a similar federal action filed by Governor Tom Corbett and the state government, takes issue with the NCAA and its top officials for the handling of the Sandusky scandal, claiming the trade organization did not have the authority to impose the sanctions it did for matters that were not related to the athletic department, and that it violated its own bylaws and constitution in doing so.
The suit seeks a declaratory judgment that the NCAA’s actions and the consent decree were unfair and unlawful, along with a permanent injunction preventing the NCAA from further enforcing any of the sanctions. It has asked for compensatory and punitive damages as well as their legal costs.
The plaintiffs include board members Ryan McCombie, Anthony Lubrano, Al Clemens, Peter Khoury and Adam Taliaferro; Paterno’s estate; Jay Paterno, a former assistant coach; and another former assistant coach, William Kenney. Seven former players, including Anthony Adams, Gerald Cadogan and Michael Robinson, along with four current Penn State faculty members, also joined in the suit.
The action names as defendants NCAA President Mark Emmert and former chairman of the NCAA’s executive committee, Edward Ray.
The lawsuit presents six counts in total. In the first of two breach of contract claims, the Paterno family and board of trustees member Clemens assert the NCAA breached an implied covenant of good faith it had with Penn State football by "purporting to exercise jurisdiction" over the Sandusky scandal. In doing so, the NCAA imposed the sanctions, refused to proceed against Penn State via the traditional NCAA enforcement process, refused to accept appeals to the consent decree and relied on the Freeh report even though the Penn State board never voted on it and even though the report does not identify any NCAA violations, along with other allegations.
The second breach of contract claim relates to Kenney, the board members and the former players. It claims the NCAA violated the implied covenant of good faith and damaged the reputations of the specified plaintiffs, all of whom were connected to the football program between 1998 and 2011 — the years in which the NCAA stripped Penn State of its wins.
Both breach of contract claims assert that Penn State President Rodney Erickson did not have the authority to waive the plaintiffs’ rights to "proper procedures."
The complaint also presents an intentional interference with contractual relations claim, asserting that Kenney and Jay Paterno have been unable to secure work since the sanctions were imposed, a defamation claim related to all plaintiffs besides Paterno’s estate and family members, and a civil conspiracy claim on behalf of all plaintiffs.
The conspiracy count claims Emmert, Ray and Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, Freeh’s law firm at the time of the investigation, conspired to bypass NCAA rules and deprive the plaintiffs of their rights. The conspiracy count claims Emmert, Ray and the Freeh firm acted with malice and intention to injure the plaintiffs.
Neither Freeh nor any of his investigators are named defendants.
In a press release, Wick Sollers, a Washington, D.C., attorney with King & Spalding who is representing the plaintiffs, said: "This case is further proof that the NCAA has lost all sense of its mission. If there was ever a situation that demanded meticulous review and a careful adherence to NCAA rules and guidelines, this was it. Instead, the NCAA placed a premium on speed over accuracy and precipitous action over due process."
The press release said any monetary damages the Paterno family recovers would go to charity.