Profit motive won’t save USC, but NCAA’s light bite might

Among the many conspiracy theories and outlandish rumors making the rounds re: the NCAA’s pending reaction (or lack thereof) against USC when the long-awaited Reggie Bush illegal benefits case finally goes before the Infractions Committee this weekend, none has been as persistent as the suggestion that the NCAA wouldn’t dare drop the hammer on one of its most visible, profitable programs if it can possibly avoid it. Obviously, the Trojans hope to avoid it, just as prominent peers Alabama, Florida State and Oklahoma have eluded meaningful punishment despite being found guilty of major violations over the last five years. If the Trojans do wriggle free from significant damage, though, former Infractions Committee chair Tom Yeager assured the Orange County Register that it won’t be because anyone is playing favorites at the NCAA, especially after almost four years on the trail:

"Speaking for the people I served on the committee with, we wouldn’t go through the time, effort and sacrifice we go through with this procedure and do it for number of years if there was one sliver of a different set of standards for one institution versus another," Yeager said. "The whole process would fall apart. That’s completely out of there. That doesn’t happen.

"There are institutions that do a better job with their cases. But if there was any hint of (bias), people would close their books, walk out and never come back."

Cynics will make of that what they will, but the record over the last 10 years backs up Yeager’s insistence on consistency: Since 2000, the NCAA has treated practically everyone with a light touch, regardless of size or influence. The last teams to face a television and postseason ban in football — a staple of major sanctions throughout the ’80s and ’90s — were Alabama (a repeat offender) and California in 2003. Over the last five years, the Association’s once formidable wrath has amounted to scholarship losses so minor they can often be applied retroactively to less-than-full recruiting classes, or "vacated" wins, a purely symbolic slap on the wrist. (And in Oklahoma’s case, one that was later revoked; Alabama is hoping for a similar reversal in its textbook fraud verdict.) Central Florida and Texas Tech — hardly powerhouses even within their own states — were treated with kid gloves when the NCAA announced probation ("i.e. don’t screw up again") against both schools for various recruiting sins earlier this month. The next program that’s significantly affected on the field or in the coffers will be the first in a very long time.

Even if the copious media reports into the Bush case are only half true, the allegations USC will be defending itself against this weekend are more serious than the charges in any other recent case, not least because they cross multiple sports and potentially implicate the entire athletic department — one of the reasons SC preemptively flogged itself with a self-imposed postseason ban in basketball in response to the pay-for-play allegations against former hoops star O.J. Mayo and since-fired coach Tim Floyd. But if the Trojans get off light — or even scott-free, as unlikely as that seems following a four-year investigation — it seems far less likely to be because of any kind of "bias" or profit motive than just another case of general toothlessness.

Kyle Bunch

Partnerships for R/GA Ventures. Raised in California, adopted by Texas. Opinions expressed here are mine and they are fantastic.

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