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Paterno family vs. NCAA lawsuit illustrates that Happy Valley divide is still very real

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

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This 2012 file photo shows a cardboard cutout of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium. (AP)


The lawyer for the family of the late Joe Paterno announced Wednesday that he plans on suing the NCAA, its president Mark Emmert and its executive committee chairman, Ed Ray.

The decision is no surprise – it's been anticipated long before it was announced on Wednesday's edition of "Costas Tonight."

The suit's goal is "to redress the NCAA's 100-percent adoption of the Freeh report and the imposition of a binding-consent decree," Wick Sollers, the Paterno family attorney, said on the NBC Sports Network show.

In layman's terms, the Paternos aren't pleased that Penn State hired former FBI head Louis Freeh to investigate the school's involvement in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. They also aren't pleased that the school fully accepted Freeh's evidence and conclusion, which painted some administrators and Paterno in a negative light.

And they are especially not pleased that the NCAA took Penn State's admission as the basis for levying significant sanctions on the school, including a $60-million fine, four years of scholarship reductions, a four-year postseason ban and, notably, the vacating of many of Joe Paterno's victories.

Since Paterno v. Penn State might be too eye-popping, this may end up Paterno v. NCAA. At its heart though, this is an internal fight, the Paternos (and their supporters) against the university he worked at for over six decades.

Sollers said the school was forced into accepting the punishment due to the NCAA's "coercion and threats behind the scenes" – i.e. possibly shutting the program down completely for a season or two. As such, "there was no ability for any of the parties filing the lawsuit to get any remediation to the grave, grave damage that has occurred from this consent decree."

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Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien answers questions during a news conference. (AP)

Since the lawsuit has yet to be filed – and perhaps even written – it would be folly to judge the merits of its argument or the NCAA's response.

At the very least it appears to have a bit stronger base than a similar suit filed by current Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, which is calling for the NCAA sanctions to be overturned based on economic harm to the local community due to the potential diminished stature of Nittany Lion football program.

That one makes little sense (other than as a political move by a politician). How can you tell the few thousand people who stopped attending games last fall did so because of the NCAA sanctions? Maybe they were protesting the school's firing of Paterno? Or maybe they were frustrated that Sandusky was able to maintain access to school facilities long after suspicions rose? And are these fans from in-state? If so, wouldn't their discretionary spending not used on Penn State tickets just get used at another Pennsylvania business?

Whatever. The civil courts can decide who wins or loses here.

What's worth noting is who isn't involved in either suit – Penn State itself. Officially, the school hasn't changed its position of compliance after accepting the NCAA punishment last summer.

"The university is not a party to any lawsuit against the NCAA that may be filed by the Paterno family," the school said in a statement. "Penn State remains committed to full compliance with the consent decree and the athletics integrity agreement. 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."

If anything, the school would love to attempt to negotiate some leniency from the NCAA, perhaps the relaxing of some of the sanctions. The lawsuits, however, bind the NCAA's hands. They can only dig in at this point. So that possibility is closed.

So a little over 18 months after the Sandusky scandal broke, 16 months since Paterno's death, 11 months since Sandusky's convictions, ten months since Paterno's statue came down and six months since new coach Bill O'Brien delivered a rousing 8-4 season, a lot of people are still pulling in different directions.

One side wants to move forward. The other that wants to stay and fight to the last battle, no matter how many years it takes.

The Paternos want what they believe is justice for Joe. They believe the lawsuit could produce evidence that exonerates him and restores his reputation. They have plenty of money and even more energy.

So they continue on with their own self-published investigations and now, perhaps, a big lawsuit.

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Bill O'Brien leads Penn State onto the field at Beaver Stadium. (AP)

It's a free country. This is their father, husband, friend. They can do as they see fit, even if much of America is done listening.

For the immediate success of Penn State football, however, these lawsuits are unwanted, and that's the other side of this.

O'Brien is trying to focus on the immediate and not so distant future – upcoming seasons and getting through the NCAA sanctions as quickly as possible so he can get the program back up to full speed. He's trying to paint the picture of a team emerging from parting clouds, not dealing with new ones that keep getting stirred up.

Programs that deal with NCAA investigations and then ensuing sanctions all crave the same thing – certainty on what's to come and when it ends. Then, and only then, can they start the process of rebuilding. The not knowing, the delays, the speculation, the rumors, that's what hurts the most.

Coaches want control. Control over obstacles and control over the message.

These lawsuits do the opposite.

While O'Brien has been able to surprise many with his recruiting success, just imagine what he can do if the job didn't keep getting more difficult.

"I think the NCAA is going to fight tooth and nail to prevent this lawsuit from going forward," Sollers told Bob Costas. "It will play out over a long period of time."

If you know anything about the cutthroat world of recruiting, you know that this specific quote – even if it's just a speculative comment from an attorney unaffiliated with the school – will be used against Penn State. An ambitious assistant coach at a rival school will easily spin it to a 16-year-old prospect as Joe Paterno's own attorney saying the NCAA case could go on for years and years, including the prospect's playing years. What, you want your career at the mercy of a slow-moving civil court system? And just wait until they get a hold of the entire lawsuit.

O'Brien wants to point to the bowl ban coming to an end soon, the 65-scholarship player limit ending soon, the hobbled program getting back to full strength soon. The worst days are behind him, he wants to argue.

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A Penn State tailgater displays a cardboard cutout of former Joe Paterno before a game. (AP)

Fair or not, stuff like this makes it a tougher sell. While many believe they can support both sides, it just isn't how the reality of college football works.

To the Paterno defenders, that's a problem worth dealing with. Their devotion to JoePa is so deep that the search for every strand of a defense is worth taking to the bitter end.

They can no more understand the "move-on" faction than the move-on faction gets them.

What Sollers calls "draconian penalties" however are to some just temporary hurdles.

There is still a team. There are still games. There are still players getting full rides. There is still the joy of fall tailgates in a beautiful setting. There is still the fight song and the stadium. This is a world class-university, after all, not just a football team. This is Penn State, not Paterno State.

Besides, it's not the Nittany Lions' birthright to be 12-0, and there is plenty to cheer for in a team that may not win as often. Last year's 8-4 team was beloved, after all. It was still fun.

And, most importantly, there is a faint light, growing at the end of the tunnel. If they can just get to it.

These are the dueling interests in State College, all these months later, very little resolved.

For Penn State, whether these lawsuits and the accompanying public-relation campaigns turn out to be help or hindrance probably depends less on what some judge eventually rules and more on where you currently exist within this still splintered community.

More Paterno coverage from NBC Sports:


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