USC is in front of the NCAA Infractions Committee in Tempe, Ariz., today and the next two days, a reckoning four years in the making since of star running back Reggie Bush’s lucrative farewell season hit the news in 2006. Fans were impatient about the NCAA’s response in 2007. In four to six weeks, finally, we’ll have our resolution based on these ongoing hearings.
In the meantime, here’s a refresher course on the most high profile, longest-running college football scandal of the decade:
• The Charges: Documents and numerous sources have connected Bush to more than $300,000 in improper benefits from competing camps attempting to woo one of the nation’s biggest stars as a client during his sophomore and junior seasons in 2004-05. Between marketing pro Mike Ornstein (an ex-con for whom Bush interned in 2005) and fledgling partners Michael Michaels and Lloyd Lake (another ex-con), Bush was reportedly funneled airfare, limo rides, clothes, expensive hotel stays, $13,000 to buy a Chevrolet Impala and weekly payments of at least $1,500. There was also the infamous 3,000-square-foot home in Spring Valley, Calif., purchased by Michaels, where Bush’s mother and stepfather allegedly lived for a year, amounting to about $54,000 in free rent they promised to repay when Bush turned pro.
Michaels and Lake raised reporters’ eyebrows after Bush chose Ornstein as his agent in 2006, evicting Bush’s parents from the home and preparing multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Bush for fraud. Michaels eventually settled out of court for $300,000; Lake’s case against Bush is still creeping forward through a thicket of appeals and depositions reportedly halted by gun-wielding goons.
The most stinging charge the NCAA can levy against USC itself is "lack of institutional control," which became a very real possibility when investigators reportedly combined the Bush probe with their investigation into former Trojan hoops star O.J. Mayo, whose already-notorious handler was caught so red-handed in alleged cash exchanges with ex-coach Tim Floyd that the school went ahead and preemptively flogged itself with a self-imposed postseason ban in exchange for (they hope) leniency from Big Brother. Combined with the program’s unusual openness to celebrities and outsiders of all stripes under Pete Carroll, the longstanding innuendo about its generally cozy relationship with agent-type life forms, the fishy rent arrangement between Bush teammates Matt Leinart and Dwayne Jarrett and its own investigation into a suspicious SUV driven by outgoing tailback Joe McKnight (who forebodingly arrived at SC labeled as "the next Reggie Bush"), it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that the athletic department is (or was) something of an open market.
• The Defense: The hitch in the "prosecution," from the NCAA’s perspective, has always been less about proving Bush was on the take — almost no one at this point would even attempt to make that argument with a straight face — than making the crucial leap from innuendo to proof against the university itself. Both Carroll, as he was leaving the school to take over the head coaching job at Seattle, and new coach Lane Kiffin (Bush’s offensive coordinator in 2005) have recently pleaded ignorance; Kiffin, attempting to quell the doubts of top recruit Seantrel Henderson earlier this month, reportedly told Henderson’s family the program should be fine "because there was no knowledge of anything going on by the staff." New Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott, who can presumably cite the results of the conference’s internal investigation in his sleep, said earlier this week he doesn’t expect serious sanctions.
If the NCAA is able to tie the Bush and McKnight cases to the more brazen Mayo hijinks under a single, "lack of control" umbrella, it may not have to charge USC with anything except negligence — i.e. not knowing that ex-cons are buttering up star players is as bad as ignoring or facilitating it — to justify a heavy-handed response. If not, the burden is much tougher; as NCAA Executive Director David Price reminded Don Yeager for Yeager’s book on the scandal, Tarnished Heisman, the NCAA wasn’t able to go after Michigan when it learned former Heisman winner Charles Woodson had accepted money from an agent while playing for the Wolverines because it couldn’t prove anything against the program: "We had no information that there was any institutional knowledge; therefore, we did not take any action against the institution or even bring charges."
On that front, the most damning claim against USC is Lake’s allegation in Yeager’s book that he was in the room with Bush’s stepfather as he discussed the sketchy housing arrangement with Carroll over the phone. Other evidence is similarly vague and circumstantial, such as various rumors that coaches and administrators (including Carroll and athletic director Mike Garrett, another former Heisman winner) were tipped off about Bush’s arrangements, were well-acquainted with the sleazier elements on the fringes of the program and were often in position to notice Bush and his family spending well above their means. Running backs coach Todd McNair (twice convicted himself on suspicion of breeding dogs for fighting during his NFL career) has been accused of socializing with sketchy characters who wanted access to players and with Bush during at least one of his high-priced hotel stays.
Even if you could prove that kind of chatter, it doesn’t amount to much in the way of a smoking gun. So far, there is no firm evidence in any published reports to date that anyone at USC had direct knowledge of improper benefits to any football player, which probably means the NCAA doesn’t have it, either.
• The Fallout: Long-held visions of white-gloved men marching out of Heritage Hall with Bush’s 2005 Heisman Trophy and/or the 2004 BCS championship trophy are misplaced, not least because the NCAA has no control over either. BCS power brokers or the Downtown Athletic Club of New York may confer later to dole out their own brand of justice, but the worst the NCAA will do in the way of that kind of symbolism is "vacate" wins from the wildly successful 2004-05 seasons — a popular punishment lately, employed against Oklahoma, Florida State and Alabama in the last four years, but a relatively empty one when it comes to deterrence. If this case is about anything from the NCAA’s point of view, it’ has to be preventing a dozen more like from breaking out across the country.
As pointed out earlier this week, and the L.A. Times chronicled on Wednesday, significant sanctions — postseason bans, television bans, aggressive scholarship reductions — are almost unheard of against Division I-A football programs, Florida States and Central Floridas alike, over the last decade. After 20 years of consistent, meaningful probation against powerhouse programs (outstanding teams from Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Miami, Texas A&M and Washington were all held out of bowl games in the eighties and nineties, to name only a few, and SMU’s program was famously disbanded for two years at the height of its success), the heavy hand disappeared almost entirely under late president Myles Brand, who came into office in 2002 with two major teams (Alabama and California) serving bowl bans and oversaw the administration of exactly zero over the next seven years. If the Infractions Committee finds USC guilty of any serious infraction, it could easily look to make an example of the Trojans to rebuff that increasingly soft image. There’s no evidence it’s prepared to do that.
If they get off scott-free, or with just a token slap on the wrist, well, I’ll be getting a lot of infuriated comments about the miscarriage of justice, and the NCAA’s credibility as a consistent, potent enforcer of its own regulations — rightly or wrongly — will be at an all-time low. That’s not a comment on anyone’s innocence or guilt; behind closed doors, the actual facts may not warrant a significant punishment. But when a case is allowed to sprawl and flourish for this long as the exemplar of open, arrogant defiance in the eyes of fans and media, anything less than a sledgehammer is inevitably going to be greeted like the O.J. verdict. Even if it wins in front of the NCAA, I don’t think there’s any way SC can come on top of the PR battle.