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NCAA Dee-constructed (Part 2)

The USC, Reggie Bush Case

On June 10, 2010, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions (COI) hit the USC football program with the stiffest sanctions regime it had imposed since the infamous SMU case of the early ‘80s. USC would lose two postseason appearances, get docked 10 scholarships per year for three years, and be limited to 15 new scholarship players per year for three seasons. The COI also ordered USC to disassociate itself from the Heisman-winning player at the center of the scandal, imposed severe restrictions on access to football practices and sidelines during games, and vacated the entire 12-win 2005 season – which included legendary games against Notre Dame and Texas.

But the biggest kick in the gut came when the COI vacated USC victories from the end of the 2004 season (including its blowout victory over Oklahoma in the BCS Title Game), and on top of that deemed every junior and senior currently on USC’s roster a “free agent” – permitting them to transfer to any other school in the country without penalty. The signal could not be more clear: the NCAA was out to destroy USC… or at least the COI was.

Indeed, it was the Committed headed by University of Miami Athletic Director Paul Dee which had wrapped a “lack of institutional control” finding around USC’s neck. “Lack of institutional control” (or “LOIC,” as it’s now popularly referred to in the blogosphere) was the basis for the precedent-setting penalties levied against USC.

The linchpin of the case against USC was of course Reggie Bush, and the money and benefits he and his family had accepted from two wannabe sports agents, Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels (yes, that is really the name he uses). While the COI brought other violations under the LOIC rubric (for example, Pete Carroll had used a non-staff “consultant” to breakdown game tape during the offseason), these violations – even cumulatively – would not warrant heavy punishment under NCAA established precedent. For example, Michigan self-imposed a penalty of “reduced offseason workouts” for the same type of consulting violation, which the NCAA ultimately ratified.

Reggie Bush poses with his infamous Impala in a photograph believed to have been taken in August 2006

The case against USC was about the benefits to Reggie Bush, and why nobody at USC put a stop to them. In that regard, it’s important to review just exactly what Reggie Bush and USC were guilty of. Reggie Bush, his stepfather, and his mother unquestionably accepted tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in benefits from Lake and Michaels in clear violation of NCAA rules. Reggie’s parents lived in a new house rent-free for nearly a year, probably received free transportation to at least two USC road games, and may have taken cash on top of that. Reggie, for his part, bought a used 1996 Chevy Impala in 2005 (presumably from funds supplied by Lake and Michaels), stayed a night at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas on Michael’s credit card, and may have accepted money for improvements to the car. (The widely distributed photograph of Reggie standing next to a “souped-up” version of his Impala was not taken until August 2006, months after Bush had signed a multi-million-dollar contract with the New Orleans Saints. The entire COI Report can be found here.

Beyond that, however, the case is more complicated than it may seem. For example, the benefits package given to Reggie’s stepfather was part of a prospective business arrangement between Michaels & Lake, on the one hand, and Reggie’s stepfather, LaMar Griffin, on the other, to form a “sports marketing” agency, which presumably would feature Reggie as the center attraction. Michaels & Lake were not USC alumni, boosters nor even fans. Michael Michaels (real name Michael Pettiford) was apparently some “mover and shaker” type with a connection to the Sycuan Indian Tribe in San Diego County. Lloyd Lake was a recently paroled ex-con who attended Helix High School, also in San Diego. Helix was not only the high school which produced Reggie Bush, but apparently was the employer of Reggie’s stepfather, LaMar Griffin. It was the Helix High/San Diego connection (not USC) which served as the basis of the relationship between Lake, Michaels, Griffin and, ultimately, Reggie.

Former Committee on Infractions Chairman Paul Dee

Which Institution Really Lacked Institutional Control?

There has never been any credible evidence that any employee, alumnus or booster of USC was in any way involved with these illicit benefits. Nor did the COI predicate its penalty on direct involvement by USC. And, perhaps most importantly, the Reggie Bush scandal had nothing to do with recruiting. (Indeed, the payments to Bush didn’t really give USC a competitive balance at all, but perhaps that’s best left for a different article.) Instead, Dee’s Committee determined that USC “should have known,” and by not knowing it failed to maintain the requisite level of “institutional control.”

Just how exactly USC “should have known” about all this strikes at the heart of Paul Dee’s conflict of interest and the trouble the NCAA will have in enforcing Dee-decreed precedent going forward. The case against USC, and indeed the entire LOIC findings, appears to be predicated on three factual determinations: first, former running backs coach Todd McNair knew Bush was receiving improper benefits, and that knowledge is imputed to the entire University; second, USC staff and compliance officers should have recognized that Bush was on the take by virtue of the Impala he began driving to school in the winter of 2005; and finally, that USC woefully understaffed its compliance department. Unfortunately for Paul Dee, the case against him for conflict of interest is substantially enhanced by exploring these determinations.

First, the case against running backs coach Todd McNair is extraordinarily weak. Indeed, McNair is now suing the NCAA for millions of dollars in damages because the COI singled out McNair for specific punishment (above that handed to USC). There is virtually no evidence of “knowledge” on the part of McNair. The COI rested its findings on four telephone calls between the cell phones of McNair and Lloyd Lake, and really nothing else. The first three calls were failed connections in a one-minute time frame on an October night in 2005 when Reggie Bush was hosting Percy Harvin on a recruiting trip to USC. All evidence indicates that McNair was attempting to reach Bush regarding Harvin’s visit on an alternative number Bush had given to McNair – a cell number belonging to Lake (who was out with Bush on that night). The only other documented contact between McNair and Lake was a January 2006 call lasting approximately 2½ minutes initiated by Lake, which took place after Bush’s final game in a USC uniform. McNair testified that he did not recall this conversation (nor any communications at all, for that matter, with Lake). It’s possible that Lake merely reached McNair’s voicemail and left a long message. It’s also possible the two discussed Reggie’s illicit benefits in detail for 2½ minutes. Or, something else entirely could have happened. But, that is all really beside the point, as the call occurred after Reggie’s final game at USC.

Also tending to exculpate McNair is the fact that in this era of electronic communications, there is not one email, one text message, one saved voicemail evidencing McNair’s knowledge of wrongdoing (or even any knowledge of Lake at all). Lloyd Lake himself took great pains in saving documents (and illegally recorded phone conversations) which would tend to implicate Bush and his stepfather; yet, he had nothing on McNair. And, indeed, when he was deposed by NCAA compliance investigators, Lake admitted that he had no direct information that McNair knew what was going on… that is, until the compliance investigators suborned Lake’s perjury convincing him to reverse his story and make a sweeping accusation that McNair “knew” or “had to know” without any factual basis.

Reggie Bush pictured with former USC running back’s coach Todd McNair, who is currently suing the NCAA

As to Reggie’s “new” used 1996 Chevy Impala, it’s not entirely clear how this vehicle somehow forms the basis for a LOIC finding. As previously discussed, the car was apparently “tricked out” after Reggie signed with the Saints. Moreover, in a city like Los Angeles, and on a campus like USC, a Chevy Impala – regardless of how new or old or “tricked out” it is – hardly stands out. To the extent Paul Dee would demand that USC officials conduct an in-depth investigation into how funds were obtained to procure such a vehicle, that requirement appears completely absurd in retrospect, given the far more flagrant and conspicuous shenanigans happing at Miami right under Dee’s nose.

Finally, the business about USC’s “understaffed” compliance department is, at best, a red herring. The very model of NCAA compliance departments has long been recognized as Ohio State, which maintains a large staff and is quick to notify the NCAA of even minor violations. Of course, that didn’t interfere at all with wide spread rule breaking by Ohio State players, including, apparently, Ohio State star Terrelle Pryor driving to practice on Ohio State’s campus with a variety of different new cars supplied by a Columbus dealer (slightly more conspicuous, one would think, than one used Chevy Impala). Dee’s complaint that USC understaffed compliance is really just a way of saying USC didn’t do enough busy work to satisfy him.

Continue Reading . . .

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