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May 10, 2013When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett stood in front of a packed room full of backers, political allies and reporters at the Nittany Lion Inn on Jan. 2, his message was undeniably positive for Penn State football fans.
The announcement of a sweeping lawsuit by the Commonwealth against the NCAA seemed to assure that the sanctions leveled against the program would be fought by an advocate with a real opportunity to halt and eventually reverse them.
Five months later, an entirely different reality has been revealed.
Corbett's lawsuit isn't just bad for Penn State football, it's potentially catastrophic.
For the past two weeks, Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien has been touring the Mid-Atlantic on the Penn State Coaches Caravan, doing his best to promote a university and an athletic department that desperately need financial and personal support. Throughout the tour, questions have been raised concerning Penn State's scholarship allotment and whether the coaching staff's already depleted roster - the team expects to have 67 scholarship players this coming fall - might prompt the NCAA to consider imposing its 65-scholarship cap this year rather than next year (thus allowing that specific sanction to end a year early).
Though the exact scholarship numbers have fluctuated throughout, a report Tuesday by Mark Wogenrich of the Allentown Morning-Call indicated that the NCAA would not, in fact, consider such a change.
Why not? To answer that question, look no further than two career politicians who are at the center of this case and whose jobs are in peril: Corbett and NCAA president Mark Emmert.
Emmert, heading an organization deeply embroiled by scandal - from the Miami fiasco to Ed O'Bannon to, yes, the Pennsylvania lawsuit - is digging in to save his career. While he received a baffling vote of confidence from the association's executive committee in February, he is under heavy scrutiny, and speculation about his possible ouster persists in light of the NCAA's pending legal proceedings.
Regardless of Corbett's lawsuit, every indication is that as long as Emmert is the head of the NCAA, there will be no negotiations to revisit the sanctions laid out in the consent decree that Penn State signed.
Corbett's lawsuit - a political Hail Mary clearly intended to boost sagging poll numbers - complicates the issue even further.
Point blank, any and all Commonwealth litigation against the NCAA prevents college sports' governing body from budging. To negotiate, scale back or alter Penn State's sanctions in the slightest would be an admission of error, and would hurt the NCAA's legal position.
The consequences of Corbett's political games don't end there.
Later this month, Federal Judge Yvette Kane will hear oral arguments in Harrisburg from both parties. There is a possibility of an injunction, which would put a temporary halt to the sanctions. The case would continue to move through the legal system, and there's a chance it would ultimately succeed. But there's also a chance it would fail, and the possibility that the sanctions would be reinstituted after a one- or two-year hiatus would be a disaster.
As it stands, O'Brien has molded a program that is deep into its plan to navigate the sanctions, and the expected challenges of 2014, 2015 and 2016 don't seem nearly as daunting today as they did last July. But an injunction halting the sanctions would leave the program swimming in the dark. Penn State would not be able to restock its roster with 85 scholarship players, because the NCAA's sword would still be hanging over the program.
Due to the highly sensitive nature of the ongoing litigation, Penn State officials are unlikely to even acknowledge its impact. Yet, O'Brien's response Wednesday in New York when asked whether there's any hope of momentum toward reduced sanctions speaks volumes.
"I really believe that that's a question for somebody other than me because, my answer is, I'm playing under these rules. I'm the football coach. I think that's either a question for our administration or the NCAA itself," he said. "I don't think I can answer that question properly because I just play under the rules, and I ask our guys, 'Look, this is what we're playing under.'
"My answer would be no. But, I think again that question is for somebody else."
Though the possibilities weren't as apparent when Corbett announced his lawsuit in January, time has shown why O'Brien and other Penn State officials avoided comment on the subject. The possibility of a legal victory tantalized Penn State fans eager for a way out, but the consequences of a loss are far more ominous.
Certainly, much is left to play itself out in the coming months and years. But as the May 20 hearing approaches, Penn State fans need to be mindful of the old saying: Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.
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