BELLEFONTE, Pa. — The NCAA is facing a new legal attack after the family of the late coach Joe Paterno was joined by former players and others connected to Penn State in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the landmark sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Long rumored to be under development, the 40-page lawsuit filed Thursday tries to show that the NCAA and its top leadership overstepped the organization’s own rules in levying penalties against the football program with uncharacteristic speed, representatives for the Paterno family have said. They hoped it would raise new questions about the university’s internal investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, along with how and why the NCAA used Freeh’s report as a basis for its sanctions in July.
A statement late Wednesday night from Paterno family attorney Wick Sollers said the case would be “further proof that the NCAA has lost sense of its mission” after college sports’ governing body relied on Freeh’s explosive report. Freeh asserted last July that Paterno and three school officials concealed allegations against Sandusky, a retired defensive coordinator; the NCAA announced its sanctions less than two weeks later.
“If there was ever a situation that demanded meticulous review and a careful adherence to NCAA rules and guidelines, this was it,” Sollers said in the statement. “Instead, the NCAA placed a premium on speed over accuracy and precipitous action over due process.”
Its suit is the latest filing in a tangled web of litigation related to the sanctions. Most prominently, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, which also has faced criticism for a botched investigation of Miami and departures in the enforcement division.
On Wednesday, Sollers and other family representatives spoke with Bob Costas on his NBC Sports Network show, along with other media, in previewing the latest lawsuit.
The NCAA said Wednesday it had not received any such lawsuit and could not comment.
“Despite our request, the Paterno family has not shared any information about its planned legal action,” chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement. “We remain committed to working with Penn State toward the continued successful completion of our voluntary agreement with the university and to working” with the NCAA’s independent monitor, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
Penn State spokesman Dave La Torre said the school was not a party to any litigation that might be filed by the family and remained committed to “full compliance” with the sanctions.
“We look forward to continuing to work with Sen. George Mitchell and recognize the important role that intercollegiate athletics provides for our student athletes and the wider university community,” the statement from La Torre said.
NCAA president Mark Emmert and Oregon State President Edward Ray, who was chair of the NCAA’s executive committee, “acted in clear and direct violation of the organization’s own rules based on a flawed report” by Freeh, said the statement from family representatives.
Sollers said Freeh is not named as a defendant, but is listed as a “co-conspirator” in the lawsuit. Sollers says that there were close communications between the NCAA and Freeh’s team throughout the investigation.
The Associated Press left messages Wednesday for a spokesman for Freeh.
Paterno’s son, Jay Paterno, and Bill Kenney were two former Paterno assistants taking part in the action against the NCAA, the statement said. Also joining in the suit were five trustees, including vocal critic Anthony Lubrano and former player Adam Taliaferro; four faculty members; and nine ex-Penn State players, including Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson, according to the statement.
Dick Thornburgh, a former U.S. attorney general and Pennsylvania governor, also was interviewed by Costas. Thornburgh was one of the authors of a critique released in February and commissioned by the Paterno family that called Freeh’s work a “rush to injustice.”
Freeh accused Paterno and three former university officials of covering up allegations against Sandusky, who was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison after being convicted last year of dozens of criminal counts of abuse including assaults on and off campus.
Paterno died in January 2012. His family and the former school officials have vehemently denied they took part in a cover-up.
Sollers said the NCAA bypassed its typical lengthy investigative process and relied on Freeh’s report, then bullied Penn State behind the scenes into agreeing to the sanctions.
The university board as a whole entity has never formally discussed, nor has it voted on Freeh’s report, though its members have embraced many of Freeh’s recommendations to improve university governance and procedures.
The penalties against Penn State included a $60 million fine. The NCAA also vacated 111 wins from Paterno’s record, meaning he would no longer hold the title of major college footbal’’s winningest coach.
The lawsuit lodges six counts against the NCAA, Emmert and Ray, including breach of contract, civil conspiracy, defamation and commercial disparagement, according to Sollers’ statement.
Sollers has said the suit would ask for the sanctions and agreement between school and the NCAA to be deemed unlawful and the penalties overturned.
The lawsuit also would ask for unspecified damages and court costs, Sollers said, though the family would donate any net proceeds to charity.
“The broader goal is to get the truth out,” Sollers told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “This narrative that’s in public that was perpetuated by the NCAA’s adoption of the deeply flawed Freeh report … cannot stand.”