NCAA: A Look at the NCAA Findings Against USC

I have finally found a bit of time to examine the now-infamous NCAA report against the University of Southern California.  This report, I think, provides a unique and comprehensive look into how the NCAA functions in its investigations.

Fair warning.  This is a lengthy piece, so if you are in a hurry, you might want to read something else, or just start now and finish later.  I am a fan of thoroughness, not necessarily brevity.

Kentucky fans, of course, know NCAA investigations well -- to our woe.  There is no point in hiding from our scofflaw past, or minimizing the things UK has done or objecting to the consequences.  UK has been clean for 20 years now in basketball and nine in football.  We all want those records of compliance to continue unabated, of course.

By looking carefully at what happened to USC, hopefully the readers of A Sea of Blue will become more familiar with what happened there.  The commentary for and against the sanctions leveled against USC is coming in thick and fast now, and by examining what the NCAA reported itself, A Sea of Blue readers should be able to place these commentaries in context and be better able to form their own opinion.

The NCAA report may be found here.  What we'll do next is take a look at the major allegations, what the NCAA claimed as proof, and what the school claimed argued against the NCAA finding.  I will summarize each one as briefly as possible, and you can read the report for yourself if you need more detail:

VIOLATIONS OF AMATEURISM LEGISLATION [Football].

This one centers around evidence that during his time as a Trojan, Reggie Bush, his family and two others agreed to form a sports agency and market Bush's talent after his USC playing days.  Not only that, but some of the principles of the agency apparently supplied Bush and his family with all manner of extra benefits, mostly in the form of cash, in order to avoid a paper trail that would subject them to NCAA sanctions.

This section reads like a criminal indictment, and indeed it could be.  What you will find here are numerous witnesses directly involved in the matter admitting to portions of the conduct that the NCAA was trying to prove.  One of the partners was apparently a felon, and the NCAA relied heavily on his testimony, but far from exclusively.  Enough of his testimony is corroborated by others to undo much of the inherent problems with his credibility in the eyes of the NCAA.

Indeed, USC's only objections to this section appear to be the character of the main witness.  If the NCAA relied exclusively on that witness, the school might have a point -- clearly, this person is not only a felon but a man who had no compunctions whatever about violating NCAA rules and using Bush and his family for his future enrichment.  He has a ton of character -- all of it lower than whale excrement.  But so much of his testimony is supported by others that the school's complaints ring hollow.

This section also illustrates how hard it is for the NCAA to conduct an investigation without subpoena power.  They were stonewalled at almost every turn by Bush, his family, and their co-conspirators.  The NCAA must rely on the good will of people involved in these types of activities to help them connect the dots, and this particular investigation is a case study in how difficult and painful it is to do this without being able to compel testimony or documents.  No wonder it took them so long to get this done.

On the other hand, this points up the sad reality that the NCAA must largely depend on what would be deemed "hearsay" evidence in order to enforce their rules.  Nobody should think this is a good thing, but it is the nature of the NCAA that it lacks the legal power to create a bulletproof case against a school.  In this case, they will be heavily criticized for relying on the testimony of a witness of undeniably bad character.  That wasn't all they had, but it was a big portion of it, and critics will drub them relentlessly for that.

Long story short -- the Bush family and other associates formed an agency, and the "money partners" provided money and benefits to Bush and his family -- not hundreds, not a couple thousand but many tens of thousands of dollars in impermissible benefits, perhaps even as much as $100,000 were it all counted.  Necessarily, much of it was missed due to the fact that most of the payments were in cash or in cash to third parties, making the tracking of the payments difficult.

UNETHICAL CONDUCT; FAILURE TO REPORT KNOWLEDGE OF NCAA VIOLATIONS [Football].

In this part of the report, the NCAA accused the assistant football coach of knowing that Bush was engaged in NCAA violations and failing to report it.  They also accused him of dissembling to the NCAA staff during the investigation.

The NCAA caught the assistant coach in a lie.  They did a very good job of checking his testimony to them against other pieces of evidence including group photos and phone calls.  There is no definitive proof that the assistant coach lied, but just as the NCAA is not given subpoena power to compel testimony, it has wide latitude to ignore rigorous due process and make judgments out of what we would call, "common sense."  There is little doubt in this instance that common sense is right.

AMATEURISM VIOLATIONS, IMPERMISSIBLE EXTRA BENEFITS [Football].

This charge relates to the employment of Bush and others as interns in a sports agency, exclusively given to athletes at USC.  No red flags here, right?  Yikes.

There are some additional violations, some minor and some not, regarding Bush.  Moving on.

IMPERMISSIBLE INDUCEMENTS AND EXTRA BENEFITS [Basketball].

This is all about O.J. Mayo.  Among other things, Mayo was determined to have received the following extra benefits:

  • Transportation and lodging at various times and in various places paid by boosters;
  • Money in the amount of about $600 wired to his girlfriend by boosters;
  • A cell phone and a wireless account paid by boosters in the amount of around $2,500;
  • Monthly wireless service for his brother in the amount of approximately $1,500;
  • A $1,400 wide-screen television which was provided by a member of Mayo's posse.

As you can see, the benefits Mayo got were utterly dwarfed by those received by Bush.  Also, there is no mention in the report of the alleged $1,000 paid by Coach Tim Floyd to Rodney Guillory, the guy responsible for many of Mayo's gifts.  Reports had the benefits paid to Mayo in the neighborhood of $30,000, but it seems that the NCAA could only come up with proof of less than half that.  I'm not sure if this indicates the relative importance USC places on the respective sports of football and basketball, but why not assume it?

The report also gigs the women's tennis team for impermissible telephone calls, but that is added almost as an afterthought.

LACK OF INSTITUTIONAL CONTROL [All Sports].

This seems a fait accompli given all the foregoing, but there are some interesting things in this as well.  The NCAA hit USC with having an enforcement staff that was substantially undermanned, and was so ineffective as to miss:

  • Reggie Bush's tricked-out Impala.  Automobile records of student athletes are required to be updated when there are changes;
  • Monitoring Reggie Bush's employment at the sports marketing agency.  A college kid employed by a sports marketing agency is such an obvious red flag that a LOIC charge could rise from this event alone.
  • Tim Floyd, after traveling to Indianapolis to discuss the evils of college basketball recruiting with the president of the NCAA, completely ignored the fact that the man who showed up at his door offering two of the best players in high school basketball to him was a walking, talking NCAA violation, and told his assistant coach to stay in touch with him, which ultimately led to the Mayo affair.
  • Exceeding the number of accountable coaches in the football program.  How the heck is that even possible except through gross negligence or some other complete breakdown?
  • Booster contact.  Detailed above.
  • Failure to monitor long distance phone charges.  This is a recurring NCAA violation at many schools (Indiana, anyone?)

All in all, this was not simply a case of a few errors slipping through the cracks.  Bush and his connections received many tens of thousands and probably more, while Mayo and his connections received a lesser amount but still in the tens of thousands of dollars.  We have seen entire seasons invalidated for far less money than this, and of course, that will be the case with USC also.

I won't comment on the sufficiency of the penalties, as they are deservedly severe.  The NCAA seriously considered banning the Trojans from television altogether, and according to the report, the decision not to do so was a very close call.  The committee was also chagrined at the poor quality of overall cooperation by the institution, as well as the obvious fact that USC was not committed to compliance due to an understaffed compliance department.

The assistant football coach was sanctioned with a show-cause penalty, but not the head coach and none of the basketball coaching staff was sanctioned.  How this is possible is beyond me.  Floyd clearly knew better, and went ahead anyway.  Pete Carroll?  How can one of your assistants get a show-cause penalty and you barely get mentioned.  Who hired that guy, anyway?

Overall, this was as egregious a public report as I have ever laid eyes on.  Most reports are highly technical in nature and carry a great number of nit-picky violations that leave you scratching your head.  Not this one.  This was pure meat-and-potatoes, and heavy on the pork fat.

As for what we learned about the NCAA, it is clear that they are fully aware of their lack of subpoena power, and that they have decided to make up for that lack by not allowing institutions to use legal arguments against their conclusions.  The most obvious case of that in this situation is their extensive reliance on the testimony of a convicted felon.  In a court of law, his character would be impeached by virtue of his previous misbehavior. 

The NCAA ignored the felony conviction altogether in favor of the obvious fact that much of his testimony was supported by the testimony of others.  USC's only argument against him was, "He's a bad guy and can't be trusted."  That may work for a jury in an adversarial setting like our legal system, but the NCAA jury wasn't buying.

What all this tells us is, as if we needed reminding, that the NCAA is not a courtroom, and doesn't use the same kind of "due process" as the courts do.  Using legal arguments against an NCAA finding is folly, and the best way to approach their findings it with the same sort of "common sense" reasoning that they themselves seem to apply, whether or not it is persuasive.  At least in that case, you are fighting the same battle on the same battlefield.  Trying to "legalize" the accusations by using such devices as questioning the character of a witness who has multiple corroborating witnesses and other facts just pisses them off.

In the end, this was an easy, obvious case of wrongdoing.  It may have been hard to assemble, but once the pieces are put together, the picture in the puzzle is clear.

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