USC Football and the NCAA Sanctions: Still More Questions Than Answers

(Aaron’s note: I know, I know, I’m four days late and a dollar short on USC, and the sanctions handed down to them by the NCAA last Thursday. Originally I was planning on commenting about them in my piece on Friday about college football expansion, but that article ran a little long and I decided against it. So my apologies if you’ve already read 4,217 takes on USC football and don’t feel like reading one more. If you’re sick of the USC talk, go ahead, skip this article and come back later in the week. I won’t hold it against ya. Promise.)

It happened three days later than anticipated, but I finally got around to reading the NCAA’s report on the USC Athletic Department this morning. I’ve got five thoughts and five thoughts only one what I read.

1. I want an hour of my life back.

2. I’ve always liked Reggie Bush, and he strikes me as an intelligent and aware guy. For someone so young, he does a lot of great charity work. But after reading these documents it turns out that he and his family are about as corrupt as the North Korean government. I still respect Bush, but my opinion on him has definitely changed.

3. For anyone who is pointing the finger at Pete Carroll in all this, go ahead and actually read the document. His name doesn’t show up nearly as much as the mainstream media makes you think it does.

4. O.J. Mayo is who we thought he was, and nothing in this document disproved that. Because of it, we’re going for the most part to skip his role and focus on Bush and the football program. This article is already going to end up somewhere around 25,000 words, and I’m doing my best to keep it from becoming 40,000. For your sake of course.

5. Look up the term, “Lack of Institutional Control,” in Webster’s and you’ll see USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett’s face there. The fact that he is still gainfully employed is not only an embarrassment to the university, but also to the school’s alumni, the Pac-10, college athletics, the city of Los Angeles, the state of California, and the colors cardinal and gold as well.

Now, let’s get to the fun stuff.

Let’s start with a quick breakdown of what the NCAA found:

Essentially this all started when two men who weren’t actually agents, but looking to start an agent-ish type company, approached the Bush family in late 2004, Reggie’s sophomore year. For comedy’s sake, one of the two men- who gave the NCAA the majority of the information in this case- is a convicted felon and spent time in prison during Bush’s junior year. Good times!

Again, neither was actually an agent, but there an implicit understanding (Or so the two thought) that when Bush turned pro, they’d set up a company to represent and market Bush, and of course enjoy the nice financial windfall that came with that.

Over the course of the next year, they provided Bush and his family with anything they could ever want: A new house with furnishings for the parents; A new car for Bush replete with all the fixings, including a sound system, rims and an intricate alarm system (I mean after all, you’ve got to protect your investments, right?); Various hotel rooms, limos and other travel accommodations for Bush; and even a Hawaiian getaway for Bush’s parents and his brother, when USC played in the islands that year. For those of you keeping score at home, yes this all happened while Bush was playing at USC under the cloak of “amateur athlete.” Or maybe that’s just what he dressed as for Halloween that year. I can’t remember.

Eventually, a separate sports marketing company got involved, landing Bush as an “intern,” during the summer between his sophomore and junior years. The funniest part of this twist, is that USC actually approved and arranged the internship for Bush, and never followed up to make sure that everything was Kosher (Which of course it was not). Again, for those you scoring at home, the school’s most recognizable athlete, a future NFL star, was working for a sports marketing company, a company that represented professional athletes, and not a single person at USC piped up and mentioned that it might be a bad idea. Hmm. We’ll go ahead and call this example No. 47 of approximately 922 that would eventually qualify as “Lack of Institutional Control.” Don’t worry, there will be many more coming.

To wrap all this up in a quick little bow, after Bush began working with the marketing company, they started picking up the family tab for travel expenses and other accommodations. Again, surprising, earth-shattering stuff, right?

Well, in the least expected twist of this Shakespearean tragedy, the original guy who was funneling Bush cash- You remember him as the “convicted felon,”- saw himself getting cut out of the Reggie Bush professional pie, and basically ratted the kid and his family out to the NCAA. I tend to find it funny that the bulk of USC’s sanctions come from Bush’s affiliation with this shady guy, yet NCAA investigators were more than happy to base almost their entire case around his testimony. The NCAA everyone!!

Just for ambiance sake, let’s quickly go to the basketball side of things, where O.J. Mayo and his crew took thousands of dollars worth of cash, gifts and electronics from runners too. But then again, when a kid recruits himself to your school by having his own convicted felon friend contact the coach and say, “Don’t worry about contacting O.J. Mayo, O.J. Mayo will contact you,” as a general rule, things aren’t going to end well. Again, O.J. Mayo is who we thought he was.

With all this information out, you by now know the sanctions levied on USC’s football program: No postseason play for two years and the reduction of 30 scholarships over three years (The athletics department as a whole was hit with that “Lack of Institutional Control,” label, which is about as bad as it gets). From what I’ve read, the NCAA wanted to actually ban USC football from television as well, but in a weird twist of events decided against it, only because of how much it would negatively impact the other schools involved. You can cut the irony with a knife my friends.

So now that all this is done, out in the open and we’ve had a weekend to digest it, there are two questions left to ask: Who is to blame, and does the punishment fit the crime?

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First and foremost, the blame game obviously starts with Bush and his family. To put it simply, they were playing agents against each other to leverage housing, travel, and accommodations for themselves. They literally ripped off tens of thousands of dollars from the first group of guys that got associated with, and honestly, I can’t blame those two for turning the Bush family into the NCAA. Unfortunately none of it really matters now, as Reggie is in the NFL and living comfortably, while it’s the current players who are taking the heat for what he did. More on that coming.

Beyond that though, obviously to a larger degree, the blame has to be placed on Pete Carroll, right?

After all, even on a team of 100+, Bush was one of his two most recognizable players (Matt Leinart being the other), and a coach always has to keep an eye on his star players, and who they’re hanging out with. It certainly didn’t help that the easy-breezy culture around USC led to a comfort level that actually saw Bush bring the agents into USC’s locker room after the games, and onto the team’s sidelines during them. Not good coach.

Again, Pete Carroll was the face of this program, and its caregiver. His fingerprints were all over everything USC football. Just like if you own a house and it gets destroyed after you rent it out for a weekend, your name is still on the lease, and the bank is coming after you. Whether Carroll likes it or not, the blame falls squarely on his shoulders.

But what struck me about reading the NCAA’s report, was how little Carroll’s name was actually found in its pages. He did commit a violation by bringing on a special “advisor,” to the program, but of course he had get approval from his bosses for that to happen (Cough…Lack of institutional control…cough). When it came to Bush though, Carroll’s name was barely mentioned.

And that’s where this all gets murky for me. Because what I want to know is where does Carroll’s role as football coach end and his job as baby-sitter begin? That’s where I’m confused.

Because, here’s the thing: It was Carroll’s job to get his team ready for Cal, Arizona State, Oregon or whoever was on the schedule next, a job he did quite well during his time in Troy. On the other hand, it was not his job to figure out what cars his players were driving and where their families are living. There are stop gaps in place to keep track of those things, and from all indications those stop gaps at USC failed.

You know how at your job there are people in charge of monitoring the employees, making sure there’s no one stealing from the supply room, and that the CEO isn’t skimming money off your paycheck to make repairs to his winter house in Aspen? Well college athletics departments have the same thing. They’re called compliance offices. And USC’s didn’t do their job.

The responsibilities of a compliance office vary from school to school, but for the most part are pretty much all the same. Essentially, they’re in place to make sure that the department complies with NCAA rules and regulations. Believe me, I know. I worked in one for a year.

Compliance offices make sure student-athletes financial aid papers are in order, and that their housing is set up. They monitor coach’s phone records and travel expenses. Again, to put it as simply as possible, they make everyone is complying with the rules. And in a strong, well run compliance office, a lot of things that went down in this USC case wouldn’t have happened. Or if they did, red flags would have gone up, and actions would’ve been taken immediately.

Take Bush’s car for example. Read the NCAA Report, and the “Lack of Institutional Control,” is laid out right there, right before your eyes.

At the beginning of Bush’s freshman year, he registered a 1996 Ford Ranger with the compliance office (Yes, athletes are even expected to register their cars). Before the start of his junior year, he re-registered, this time with a 1996 Chevy Impala. He didn’t however, provide required license plate and registration information, and USC never bothered to follow up.

First off, I’m going to say this: I understand that athletic departments can’t keep up with every little thing that every one of its athletes is doing, especially at a place like USC. If agents want to get to kids, they’re going to. But at the same time, agents aren’t trying to get to the back-up goalie on the soccer team, or the No. 3 singles player on the tennis team either. They’re not even trying to get to everyone on the football team. One of my best friends was a Division I football player, and believe me when I say that he had as many agents offer him cars in college as were offered to me. None.

But Bush was a star. He was the most recognizable athlete in one of the most recognized athletic departments in the country. He was a top pro prospect. There is no reason that USC shouldn’t have been keeping an especially close eye on him.

And when he came back to campus for his junior year at USC in a new, tricked out car, registered it with the compliance office and conveniently avoided giving the license plate information, how did that not raise a single red flag with anyone? Why didn’t anyone follow up? Why didn’t anyone snoop around, or see if the car looked like something that a 21-year-old college junior could afford? That’s what a good compliance office does. They ask the questions that no one else wants to. They’re a pain in everyone’s a**. But a good compliance office would have been suspicious when a future pro athlete showed up after a superstar sophomore year in a new car. Again, that’s their job.

Now I know what you’re thinking right now: “Aaron, who cares about the compliance department? Even if they’d figured everything out, the Bush family had already accepted thousands of dollars from these agents. The car had been purchased. USC couldn’t have gotten themselves out of trouble.”

To a degree, you’re right. But even if they couldn’t have stopped Bush before everything went down, a good compliance officer would have sniffed the whole thing out and reported it, before the NCAA could beat them to the punch. If that happened, maybe the sanctions that were handed down last week wouldn’t have been so harsh.

Which brings us to the second question: Does the punishment fit the crime?

I can’t see how it does. I can’t see how punishing a group of kids who were in middle school when all this happened is fair. I can’t see how Bush gets away unscathed, the agents get away unscathed, Pete Carroll gets away unscathed, but current players like Allen Bradford, Ronald Johnson and Chris Galippo don’t get to end their career’s with bowl games.

Here’s the bigger question though: Why isn’t the book getting thrown at Athletic Director Mike Garrett in all this?

At the end of the day, USC was hit with the violation of “Lack of Institutional Control.” Isn’t the athletics department Garrett’s institution? Isn’t it under his control? Wasn’t he the guy who hired Carroll and basketball coach Tim Floyd? Isn’t he the one who created and cultivated the culture where Carroll was passive with his players, Floyd was recruiting high school kids with professional entourages, and his compliance office wasn’t do their job? Isn’t he the man behind everything that went wrong at USC during the time of the NCAA investigation?

That to me is the disappointing thing of all.

Instead of punishing the players and coaches, who had little or nothing to do with these violations, why not ban Garrett as USC’s AD for a year? Why can’t the NCAA say that USC can keep all its scholarships and play in the postseason if Garrett stepped down from his post? He’s the bad guy in all this, and it’s time someone made him look that way.

Unfortunately life doesn’t work like that, and Garrett gets off free. He gets to keep posing for pictures, shaking hands and attending USC booster events. All while the student-athletes whose interests he’s supposed to be protecting are taking the fall for him.

As for the future at USC, there’s still a lot more gray than there is black and white.

What is the future of a program with limited scholarships and a new coaching staff? (I’ll spare you the discussion on whether this is all karma catching up with Lane Kiffin or not. That’s its own 2,000 word column) What’s the future for USC’s juniors and seniors who now have the option to transfer and play right away? What happens if God forbid USC goes undefeated over one of the next two years and would have played for a National Championship? Think that won’t create some headlines?

On a different note, the questions remain for those who’ve departed. What’s the legacy of Bush, a bona-fide celebrity and one of the most beloved USC athletes ever? How about Carroll, the one-time savior of one of college football’s proudest programs?

That all remains to be seen as time goes on, but for now, none of us will know the outcome anytime soon.

It took the NCAA almost five years to come down with a verdict for USC and its athletics program.

But even after all this time, there are still more questions than answers.

(Love the article? Hate it? Completely disagree? Let Aaron know by commenting below, or e-mailing him at ATorres00@gmail.com. Also for his take on all things sports, be sure to add him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres and Facebook.com/AaronTorresSports)

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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