The NCAA can choose how it interprets its rule book, and it’s choosing to keep USC down.
The problem is that the ruling to uphold the original penalty for the improper benefits accepted by Reggie Bush – 30 lost scholarships over three years and not being eligible for a bowl or the Pac-12 Championship game this year – isn’t going to be a deterrent in any way, shape or form. The other big problem is that it’s an inconsistent decision.
Let’s say that now-USC athletic director Pat Haden had gone to the NCAA and said, “We didn’t know what was going on.” The NCAA would have its excuse to keep the ever-nebulous “lack of institutional control” catch-all label on USC, but Cam Newton got away with NCAA-rule murder by using the same line. Newton didn’t get penalized for “lack of parental control,” since he allegedly didn’t know what his dad was doing, but USC, allegedly, didn’t know what Bush was doing.
Why is Ohio State only getting punished by losing five games of eligibility for Terrelle Pryor and the Tattoo Five, and why did they all get to play in the Sugar Bowl? Was the punishment five games instead of six because the road trip to Nebraska is that sixth game? Where’s the “institutional control” over the Buckeye football program. And more importantly, since it’s not OSU President E. Gordon Gee, who has control over Jim Tressel? Ohio State, at least for the moment, doesn’t appear to be worthy of getting hammered with any major sanctions, but Pryor was outside of any sort of institutional control, just like there was no control over Bush.
But the NCAA is trying to make a statement. USC is going to be held up as the cautionary tale for what happens when Programs Gone Wild get a bit too sloppy. The athletic department is being hurt because Bush went rogue, and the NCAA is trying to tell all programs and all star players from now on that you will be hit and hit hard if you step out of line like Bush did. But it’s not like Pete Carroll was setting up meetings with marketing companies to figure out how to broker the Subway deal. Meanwhile, higher-ups around the college athletic world are tip-toeing around the idea that players getting money isn’t a bad idea.
In a time when Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and others are championing the idea that players should be getting more of a stipend, it’s a tomato vs. tomahto argument when it comes to how the money should theoretically get into their hands. A gift card from a bowl game is OK, but working with a marketing company isn’t. Extra money from guilt-ridden commissioners is kosher, but woe to the player who sets up deals for down the road.
I know, I know, I know, Trojan haters; the punishment for the Bush situation is sort of like getting a ticket for not wearing a seat belt instead of for driving 98 mph in a 40, but the only difference here is that there’s a paper trail. Stanley McClover didn’t get any receipts for the duffel bags of cash he allegedly received from Auburn.
And that’s the real sticking point here. The NCAA chose to keep USC down by not lightening the penalties, just like it chose to take an interpretation to let Newton stay eligible rather than interpreting the rule book another way, like it could’ve, and acknowledged that Cecil Newton acted as the textbook definition of an agent. Auburn and Newton couldn’t run off the field fast enough after getting the sweetest ruling in recent NCAA history, and that’s fine, just like the ruling against the Ohio State players really wasn’t that bad – unless you’re USC. Tonight, everyone around the Trojan program has to be wondering why this particular situation is really so much different.
None of this will matter a lick to future generations of players who want to take deals under the table. Star players who desperately need money aren’t going to think about the repercussions, and they aren’t going to keep the NCAA’s ruling against USC in mind. Of course, coaches are going to preach and plead with players to not screw up, but the warnings are going to come across as coherently as Charlie Brown’s teacher to any player good enough to be tempted by extra benefits.
It’s why Nick Saban and Urban Meyer were screaming about the agent problem. It’s why coaches spend half their time trying to police their players and why they want to be such detail-oriented taskmasters. If one superstar player goes rogue and tries to get his, he can bring down an entire program even though he’s not breaking any laws.
Remember, USC isn’t getting in trouble for academic fraud. Bush didn’t get arrested or charged with a crime, and he didn’t do anything but get greedy and take money a bit too early. He didn’t do anything really wrong; just like Cecil Newton didn’t do anything that was that wrong; just like talking to an agent isn’t wrong; and just like selling and exchanging personal property isn’t wrong.
What’s wrong is that the NCAA can’t seem to apply the same rules across the board. In this case it wanted to keep paddling USC, and it did.