The LA Times reported today that the NCAA is combining their investigations of improper benefits received by Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo. This claim is being made by the lawyers of Louis Johnson, the individual who first made the allegations that Mayo had been receiving illegal benefits while enrolled at USC. Currently this has not been confirmed by the NCAA.
Long-time readers of this blog may remember that we have been pretty consistent on the subjects of Bush and Mayo. There's no question that Bush and his family took improper benefits, but equally there's a legitimate argument to be made that the benefits were channeled in such a way as to evade compliance processes. Whereas most compliance regimes are designed to catch boosters providing benefits to students, they are not designed to monitor student's families.
However, and again this is a point we've made consistently, it is significantly harder to make that argument in the case of Mayo, for three reasons: 1) Mayo came after Bush, 2) Mayo was accompanied by Rodney Guillory, who had already been involved in NCAA sanctions against USC's basketball team; and, 3) there's a well known culture of corruption in youth basketball that outstrips anything one might find in football.
One might note in response that Mayo was cleared by the NCAA, but in fairness, what's that's worth? And, if you have to ask for a pre-emptive clearance, isn't that a message in itself?
In any case, with those three differences between Bush and Mayo, a good number of Trojan fans and alumni had the following reaction to the Mayo allegations: "What the hell were you thinking?!"
However, that doesn't get you to the leap made by Louis Johnson's attorney Anthony V. Salerno, who is quoted in the LA Times as follows:
"It makes sense," Salerno said. "The NCAA looks at the program as a whole, and you may be talking about systemic problems in these cases of payments by agents. Yes, these were different teams and coaches. Rather than do it piecemeal, look at the institution."
This is the sort of self-serving distortion that any good lawyer should be able to spout, but does it hold up? That seems doubtful. In both cases, disgruntled former associates blew the whistle on violations when, and only when, they lost on their end of the deal. If there have been systemic payments on a large scale, then that would require that not only was the compliance office failing to catch the activities outside of the normal scope of surveillance (Bush), but also that they were failing to catch more conventional corruption on a grand scale (everyone else). There's simply no evidence that this is the case: if the problem were pervasive, then other disgruntled associates would be lined up to talk to the NCAA with their lawyers in tow, stepping over the players who weren't able to cover their tracks. Two cases out of hundreds of athletes over the time that Bush and Mayo spent at USC don't add up to systemic abuse.
The closest thing to a "systemic" problem is bad judgment in the Athletic Department. In the wake of the Bush imbroglio, they decided to accept a basketball recruit associated with a known problem of a representative, Guillory. Guillory had prior form with sanctions at USC. Guillory was allowed to hang around the Galen Center. And Mayo was engaged not just by Floyd but also by Mike Garrett, who wanted to be sure that Mayo wouldn't screw with SC's APR by checking out after the basketball season was over. There were multiple risk factors, and as anyone with any background in management will tell you, if you have a risk associated with an action, you either accept the risk and mitigate it along the way, or you *don't take the risk in the first place.*
The reason that Mayo's lawyers can blithely make accusations of systemic abuse in the case of 2 athletes, out of the hundreds who have gone through SC without accusation over the same time frame as Bush and Mayo, is that after being caught out by the Bush case, the Athletic Department did not reject the risk associated with Mayo, and they plainly didn't manage the risk either. And that, ultimately, falls at Mike Garrett's door.
If the NCAA has in fact merged these investigations, it suggests that they are less likely to come out with some damning evidence on one instance or the the other. Merge the investigations, and there's a chance to use the surface logic of two closely consecutive cases to suggest that there are institutional control problems. That's a harder issue to answer, and perhaps it offers the NCAA a chance to rap the Athletic Department's knuckles.
In turn, it seems incumbent upon the powers that be at USC to ask some questions not just about day-to-day compliance management, but the bigger picture of what's really being done to manage the Athletic Department and the guidance and direction they provide to the programs under their authority. Because if they aren't learning from these two cases, there's always a chance that some other athlete will decide to take advantage, and that can only be explained away for so long.