USA – Schools for Scandals

Schools for Scandals

In June, the NCAA wrapped up a four-year investigation, concluding that University of Southern California star running back Reggie Bush and his family received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts—including a limousine ride to the 2005 Heisman Trophy presentation in New York—from sports agents Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels, in violation of the athletic association’s rules. Under NCAA rules, college athletes can’t be paid more than a small stipend by the university, and they cannot contract with agents until they declare themselves eligible for the pro draft.

Last week, news broke that the Heisman Trophy Trust is considering stripping Mr. Bush of the award, something it has never done in the past 75 years. It should. According to the Heisman ballot, "The recipient must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA student-athlete," and, per the NCAA’s investigation, Mr. Bush was not.

In meting out penalties, the NCAA forced USC to vacate its last two wins of the 2004 season (including the 2005 Orange Bowl), and all its 2005 season victories. The Trojans are banned from bowl games this year and next, and will lose 30 scholarships over three years. Running-backs coach Todd McNair is also banned from off-campus recruiting for one year because the NCAA concluded that he knew about Mr. Bush’s dealings with Messrs. Lake and Michaels. And in its latest move to disassociate itself from Mr. Bush, USC removed his jersey from the peristyle steps of the Colisseum before Saturday’s home opener against Virginia.

Mr. Bush and USC, of course, aren’t the first rule-breakers. College athletics has been rife with scandals and shady dealings since the day it started. The first-ever intercollegiate athletic event was a rowing contest in 1852 between Harvard and Yale on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. Why not on the Charles River? Because the match was really a promotional event put on by James Elkins, the superintendent of the Boston-Concord-Montreal Railroad, designed to increase ridership. The rowers received more than $500 in swag, including gold-leafed oars and jeweled trophies from Tiffany & Co.

As for the Heisman, Georgia’s Herschel Walker won the trophy in 1982, one year after remedial English instructor Jan Kemp came forward and complained that the athletic department had pressured her to give passing grades to nine football players who failed her course, so that they could play in the 1982 Sugar Bowl against Pittsburgh (a game Georgia ultimately lost on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass by Dan Marino). Ms. Kemp was never forced to reveal those names, but the scandal tainted not only Mr. Walker’s career at Georgia, but his Heisman Trophy. He has never been asked to return his Heisman.

While the penalties against Mr. Bush and USC are a nice gesture, they’re indicative of the problem with the penalties typically handed out by the NCAA. Namely, they’re never enough to deter future bad behavior. The school lost 30 scholarships, valued at about $50,000 each. That’s $1.5 million. Last year, the participating teams in the five BCS bowl games—Fiesta, Orange, Rose, Sugar and BCS National Championship Game—each received $18 million. If you were a coach or athletic director, would you risk a $1.5 million fine in a loosely enforced system to look the other way on illicit contacts with an agent, fudge a transcript or pressure a professor to change a grade in exchange for a payday that’s 12 times what the penalty would be?

And what about Pete Carroll, the USC football coach? The NCAA found systemic violations in the USC athletic department, including "lack of institutional control"—NCAA-speak for a program with multiple violations. More specifically, the NCAA said USC was too lenient in its admission policy to football practice, which under Mr. Carroll was open to almost anyone, including potential recruits. Yet Mr. Carroll, like so many college coaches who bend the rules, has moved on to greener pastures, conveniently just ahead of the NCAA posse. Before the NCAA concluded its investigation, he traded his $4.5 million-a-year job at USC for one paying $2.5 million more, becoming head coach and president of the Seattle Seahawks.

John Calipari, the former men’s basketball coach at the University of Memphis, made a similar move. Earlier this year the school was forced to vacate all 38 wins during its 2007-08 season. The Educational Testing Service determined that star freshman recruit Derrick Rose—now making $5.5 million a year playing for the Chicago Bulls—had someone else take his SAT exam. Memphis had to pay back $615,000 in tournament revenue, while Mr. Calipari is now the highest-paid college basketball coach in the country, having signed an eight-year, $31.5 million contract with Kentucky.

And where is the NFL in the USC scandal? Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of rape during the past two off-seasons but was never convicted. That didn’t stop NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell from suspending Mr. Roethlisberger for the first four games of this season. Mr. Roethlisberger’s teammates also showed their disapproval of his off-season behavior by not re-electing him team captain.

What will the NFL do now about Messrs. Bush and Carroll, whom the league is obligated to pay nearly $60 million over multiyear contracts? The answer can be found in the case of Mike Ornstein, a marketing agent who illegally hired Mr. Bush as an intern while he was still at USC, and also paid for trips for Mr. Bush’s family. Mr. Bush dropped Mr. Ornstein in 2006, but today Mr. Ornstein is still gainfully employed—as the agent for Sean Payton, coach of Mr. Bush’s Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints.

The problem is not with the kids who play prep, high-school and college sports, but with the adults. They’re the ones who are supposed to be setting the example for these kids. But with each one of these scandals, we learn that it is the parents, coaches, agents, athletic directors and college presidents who are the problem. The kids are merely following their example. And that’s why this problem will be so hard to cure—if ever.

Mr. Yost is the author of "Varsity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at the Culture and Corruption of College Athletics."


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