This post examines the process by which the NCAA justified vacating USC 2004 BCS title game victory. A crucial element in their justification centers around exactly when Reggie Bush himself began receiving benefits form Lloyd Lake. I will present documents that suggest that the NCAA amended their formal allegations against USC in the final months (perhaps weeks) of their 4-year investigation for the specific purpose of vacating USC’s 2004 BCS title victory. You decide.
The USC Public Infraction Report
In the NCAA’s USC Public Infraction Report (PIR), released 6/10/10, Finding 1-a-(4) is stated as follows (PDF page 5):
During a telephone conversation in late 2004, student-athlete 1 informed agency partner A that he (student-athlete 1) was embarrassed to drive his current vehicle, a pick-up truck, and wanted a different vehicle. Agency partner A agreed to provide the cash to purchase a vehicle. A short while later, in December 2004, student-athlete 1 located a vehicle he wanted, and agency partner A gave student-athlete 1's stepfather several thousand dollars in cash for a down payment on the vehicle. Student-athlete 1 later contacted agency partner A to request additional money needed to purchase wheel rims for the vehicle. Agency partner A then drove from San Diego to Los Angeles and gave student-athlete 1 an additional several thousand dollars in cash. Approximately one week later, agency partner A gave student-athlete 1 another sizable cash payment, which the student-athlete used for a car alarm and audio system.
USC’s Document of Response to NCAA allegations
However, before it became Finding 1-a-(4), it was Allegation 1-a-(4). The NCAA, compiling 4 years worth of investigative effort and analysis, submitted a list of formal allegations to USC in late 2009. USC prepared a written response to these allegations in December 2009, and defended itself against these allegations at the COI meeting Feb 19-21 in Arizona. USC released a copy of its defense document, in which NCAA’s Allegation 1-a-(4) is stated as follows (PDF page 32-33):
During a telephone conversation in February 2005, Student athlete 1 informed Agency partner A that Student athlete 1 was embarrassed to drive his truck and needed a different vehicle. Agency partner A agreed to provide the cash to purchase a vehicle. A couple of days later, Student athlete 1 located a vehicle to purchase, and Agency partner A gave (Redacted) $13,000 cash. Student athlete 1 called Agency partner A from the dealership to thank Agency partner A for the money and to request additional money needed to purchase rims for the vehicle. Agency partner A then drove from San Diego to Los Angeles and gave Student athlete I approximately $5,000 cash. Approximately one week later, Agency partner A gave Student athlete 1 an additional $3,500 in cash, which Student athlete 1 used to pay for a new alarm and audio system for the vehicle. [Bylaw 126.96.36.199]
Why would the NCAA change the date?
Reviewing these documents, it is apparent that the NCAA changed their story regarding when the Impala purchased from February 2005 (Allegation 1-a-(4)) to December 2004 (Finding 1-a-(4)). This change most certainly occurred between the February 19-21, 2010 COI meeting and the PIR release on June 10, 2010. The question is: Why did the NCAA change the date? This was a period of time during which the COI should have been involved primarily with reviewing USC defense and assessing penalties. While it is possible that new evidence was uncovered during this period that supported amending the allegation, there is no mention of anything (i.e. new evidence) in the final PIR report that wouldn’t have been known at the COI meeting. It is also possible that the COI did not perform a rigorous analysis of their evidence prior to presenting their formal allegations to USC in late 2009, but did so after the COI meeting in February 2010, thus arriving at a different conclusion. This seems unlikely.
All that we can know for certain is that the conclusion of the NCAA’s first 4 years of the investigation was that the car was purchased in February 2005, and that they felt sufficiently confident with this position that they asserted a formal allegation of such to USC in late 2009. But by June 2010, they changed their minds. It is particularly revealing that they changed their minds during the penalty phase of the investigation. Is it possible that the NCAA modified their findings and conclusions for the primary purpose of justifying a predetermined penalty that they otherwise could not justify? That seems very likely to me. To USC fans, much of the NCAA’s ‘justice” seems as if it came from working backwards from a predetermined conclusion, and the curious case of Finding 1-a-(4) is very difficult to explain in any other way.
So…did the NCAA really need to have Bush himself receiving benefits in December 2004 to justify declaring him ineligible for the final two games of the season? Well…they needed something. They needed either: 1. solid documentation that Bush or a family member had received benefits, or 2. evidence that Bush himself had made an “agreement of representation” with an agent. The alleged benefits (mostly clandestine cash payments) were impossible to date and confirm, except through the recollections of disreputable witnesses. Reggie’s Impala, on the other hand, was a highly visible and tangible benefit. The NCAA chose to make this the cornerstone piece of evidence dating the violations to December 2004. From the PIR (PDF page 12), these are the NCAA’s own words:
The question facing the committee was whether student-athlete 1 agreed to become involved with the proposed agency and, if so, when that happened. The committee finds that an agreement for representation was made in the fall of 2004 when student-athlete 1 and his stepfather agreed to form a sports agency with agency partners A and B and that student-athlete 1 began receiving benefits at least by December 2004 when he received funds to purchase an automobile. [See Finding 1-a-(4).]
Consider the implications if the NCAA hadn’t changed their conclusions in the final hour. The PIR passage would conclude “…student-athlete 1 began receiving benefits at least by February 2005 when he received funds to purchase an automobile.” If this were the case, would the NCAA be able to justify vacating USC‘s 2004 BCS title victory? It would have been a tenuous position for the NCAA. These are the other pre-Orange Bowl “findings” in the NCAA PIR that are cited to document improper benefits to the Bush family and Reggie’s agreement to representation (PIR, PDF pages 12-13):
In making this finding, the committee relied on the following evidence:
Telephone records that reflect roughly 100 calls between agency partner A and student-athlete 1 or between agency partner A and student-athlete 1's stepfather in December 2004.
Information from the former brother-in-law that he learned in the fall of 2004 of agency partner A's and student-athlete 1's step-father's plans to establish the sports agency.
Information from agency partner A's sister that in the fall of 2004 she learned of the efforts to form the agency and that student-athlete 1 would be a part owner and "cornerstone" of the agency.
Information from agency partner A that agency partner B would not commit and provide funds unless student-athlete 1 was "on board."
The sequence of events as described by agency partner A, including that in October 2004, agency partners A and B had an initial meeting with student-athlete 1's stepfather in a San Diego Chargers skybox owned by the investor group with which agency partner B was affiliated.
As set forth in Finding 1-a-(4), in December 2004, funds were provided so that student-athlete 1 could purchase an automobile and accessories. Agency partner A's mother was involved in this transaction and would not have provided funds unless she understood that student-athlete 1 was committed to the formation of the sports agency.
As set forth in Finding 1-a-(3), the former brother-in-law helped purchase tickets for student-athlete 1's parents to the Orange Bowl in early January 2005. The committee believes it unlikely that the provision of such a benefit would happen if there was no understanding that student-athlete 1 was committed to the agency.
In reviewing these findings, it is clear that telephone records, Reggie’s step-father's “plans to establish the sports agency” and “efforts to form the agency”, partner B’s agreement to provide funds (there is no date stating when this occurred), and skybox meetings fail to establish any direct evidence of Reggie Bush’s agreement to representation or acceptance of benefits prior to January 4, 2005. Since the exact date that Lake, Bush and his stepfather entered an agreement for representation is a point of contention (the NCAA acknowledges that an “operating agreement” was not in place until Jan. 20th, 2005, PIR page 13), the date that Bush began receiving benefits would be strong evidence of a tacit and consensual agreement and on Reggie’s part. Without this, you’ve basically got a couple of guys talking, perhaps negotiating, about forming a sports agency, and the NCAA bylaws specifically prohibit “agreement of representation”, not talking. Without the Impala being given to Bush in December 2004, the NCAA’s case to vacate USC’s 2004 BCS title victory would ultimately boiled down to the final two bullet points (funds and tickets)…and these are glaringly unsubstantiated by any credible documentation. Faced with a choice, I believe the COI opted to corrupt the conclusions of their investigation (regarding the date of the Impala purchase) rather than pursue their predetermined and desired penalty (vacate USC’s 2004 BCS title) solely on the basis of the final two bullet points. The NCAA conclusion, as stated in the passage cited above, indicates that the auto was the critical piece of evidence upon which all subsequent sanctions are dated.
USC was right about at least one thing
Referencing USC’s document of response from December 2009, USC concluded the following (PDF page :
USC agrees that Student athlete 1 (Bush) was ineligible for competition throughout the 2005-6 football season. We have no basis upon which to conclude that Student athlete 1 was ineligible for competition during the 2004-2005 football season.
Of course USC’s conclusion is based on Allegation 1-a-(4) (i.e. the car was purchased in February, 2005), as the NCAA had not yet issued Finding 1-a-(4) (i.e. the car was purchased in December 2004). If the NCAA agreed with USC’s assessment, this could have been pivotal in their decision to change 1-a-(4). In fact, if the decision to change 1-a-(4) was made after the Feb 19-21 COI meeting, it is possible that USC never even had the opportunity to defend the allegation that Bush accepted benefits in December 2004. NCAA justice prevails again!
When was the Impala purchased?
I assert no knowledge of when the Impala was actually purchased. I do not contend that the Impala was purchased after the Orange Bowl, only that the NCAA determined late into their investigation that the Impala was purchased after the Orange Bowl, and then opted to change their minds so that they could justify vacating the Orange Bowl victory.
The two individuals in best position to recollect when the vehicle was purchased are: 1. the guy who allegedly paid for it (Lake) and 2. the guy who drove it off the lot (Bush). In examining Allegation 1-a-(4), it begins: “During a telephone conversation in February 2005, Student athlete I informed Agency partner A (Lake) that Student athlete 1 (Bush) was embarrassed to drive his truck and needed a different vehicle.” As a telephone conversation is between two people, only two people would have direct knowledge about it…Lake and Bush. Any testimony about this phone call would be from either Lake or Bush, or it would be hearsay (which is probably admissible to the NCAA, but which hopefully would not be the sole basis for a pivotal allegation). Since it is unlikely that Bush would provide the testimony supporting 1-a-(4), it very likely this allegation came directly from Lake’s testimony. I believe that Lake is on record stating that he purchased a car for Bush in February, 2005. This would not be the only time that Lake made statements contradicting the NCAA’s conclusion that the car was purchased in December 2004. The Yahoo timeline reports:
Spring 2005: Sources say New Era Sports pays Bush almost $13,000 to buy a pristine black-on-black 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS in Los Angeles. Sources say the car is subsequently outfitted with chrome rims and a stereo.
For the seasonally-challenged, Spring 2005 extends from March 2005 to June 20005. Yahoo does not reveal their “sources”, but it’s a safe bet that Bush wasn’t the source. You do the math. The Yahoo timeline line is important because it ultimately proved to be a very accurate account of the story from the perspective of Lake Furthermore, the Yahoo investigation would have been conducted within a year of “Spring 2005”, before the story broke, and before other investigational organizations began amending their facts and leading their witnesses toward their predetermined conclusions. It’s reasonable to presume, based on Allegation 1-a-(4) and the Yahoo timeline that Lake’s statement to two separate investigative bodies was that the auto was purchased in February or Spring 2005. By ultimately finding that the car was purchased in December 2004, the NCAA necessarily must have decided that Lake’s version of the time frame was incorrect. The PIR makes no mention of a basis upon which they would conclude that Lake’s version was incorrect. The only thing they stated about Lake’s credibility was the following (PIR, PDF page 7):
The committee concluded that agency partner A was credible in the information he provided with regard to the efforts to establish a sports agency centered on student-athlete 1, and with regard to the benefits provided to student-athlete 1 and his family associated with those efforts.
It is unclear if the NCAA genuinely believed that a convicted felon, who was in active violation of numerous laws throughout his entire contact with Bush and who undoubted harbored an overt agenda of vengeance throughout is entire contact with the NCAA, was believable. But it is evident that they chose to believe him in all instance in which his testimony served to advance their predetermined agenda and not to believe him in any of those instances in which it was contrary to their agenda.
I do not know if Bush (the other side of the telephone conversation cited in 1-a-(4)) ever provided testimony regarding the date that the Impala was purchased, but it has been reported that Bush denied receiving funds from Lake to purchase the car. The NCAA apparently relied on a USC Student-Athlete Motor Vehicle Information form that Bush completed in August, 2005 which stated the Impala was purchased “December 2004”. The NCAA chose to adopt this date, probably based on this clerical document. In doing so, the NCAA has adopted a version of the Impala story that is in conflict with the testimonies of both of the principle witnesses, Lake and Bush, as neither is on record stating that Lake bought Bush a car in December. Furthermore, the NCAA is establishing a precedent that BCS championships can hinge upon something as seemingly minor as the accuracy by which college kids complete administrative paper work.
This I know….
While I don’t know when the Impala was purchased, I do know that I would be able to make a best determination of when this occurred if I had access to all of the information available to the NCAA as a result of their 4 year investigation. Most fair minded people would be able to do this. I do know that I would achieve a solid position in this matter before I submitted a formal allegation of misconduct to an institution. If I subsequently changed my allegation, I would have a better reason than the following (this quote is hypothetical):
“Well, we had this form here…from the very beginning. It says ‘December 2004’. And we know that sometimes people make mistakes on forms, and we didn’t believe this guy anyway. So we decided that our witness, who we believed everything else he said, was right about ‘February 2005’ deal. He said the same thing to Yahoo, so he’s consistent. But at the end, we…ah… just decided it must be ‘December 2004’, because it said so here on the form, you see.”
It remains to be seen if the NCAA will ever produce a better explanation for the change than that satirized by the above quote. Their PIR report contained no such explanation. I think most fair-minded people understand the fallacy in this type of decision-making process. Enough said.
Why does it even matter?
It matters for 2 reasons:
First, it matters because justice is threatened. As far as the 2004 BCS title game, it really doesn’t make much difference to me personally. I saw the game. I know who won. Truth is, there are far more serious penalties in the PIR than those two games. But those two games are very significant because of why and how they were vacated. There was tremendous pressure on the COI to take that 2004 title, and the NCAA couldn’t have been happier to oblige. By taking the position that predetermined penalties would be imposed before weighing the evidence, the COI assumed not only their defined roles of judge, jury, and executioner, but also the role of lead prosecutor as well. And that is simply too much power for any organization to manage, especially an organization that is shrouded in secrecy, and subject to no meaningful oversight.
There are those Trojans who feel that USC could have managed this better, possibly achieved a lighter sentence. I say not likely. No matter what USC had done, that COI was going to cherry pick which evidence, arguments, and actions were credible, and ignore everything else. If they can backdate their own conclusions to take away the 2004 BCS victory, they’ll do whatever they want to. Would you expect anything less from a committee that is full of individuals with life-long passions for institutions that are rivals of USC on the field (ND, Oregon) and for legacy (Miami)? It’s no coincidence that Paul Dee used the exact same language “significant lack of institutional control” and applied almost the exact same penalties as levied against his beloved 1995 Hurricanes. Quite possibly, Dee was serving the interests of his Hurricane teams from the 80s and 90s, rather than USC and the NCAA of 2010. The primary similarity between the USC and Miami teams is that they had established near-dynasty success, were universally hated throughout the CFB world, and committed violations. The violations were vastly different, but there was no reason for Dee to delve any further. The penalties would be the same, and Dee could pass off a portion of the pain and heavy burden that he had carried since 1995. The price didn’t matter.
As long as there is money, greed, and human weakness around college football, we can expect that there will be more future violations like those of Reggie Bush. With the current NCAA system, we can expect that justice for these violations will be administered in a haphazard fashion. Teams like Florida, tOSU, and Texas are as universally hated in the CFB world as USC is. I would hope that they would not be subjected to the type of vigilante justice that befell USC, but I have no reason to believe they won’t be, as public perception seems to be a significant element of NCAA justice.
Second, this matters because the very nature of competition is threatened. By analogy, think back to the 2009 Big 12 championship game. As the last second ticked off the clock, Nebraska appeared to have won 12-10. But Mack Brown asked for one more second to be put back on the clock. The referee headed to the replay booth to make a decision that would ultimately give Texas a 13-12 victory. At lot was at stake for both teams and the Big 12. Does the Big 12 send a team to the NCG, or do they get two teams into the BCS bowls? However, the only things that mattered were the rule book and the visual evidence on replay. To state that any of these other peripheral considerations should matter, no matter how important they are to the teams the conference, the fan bases, and college football, would be absurd.
Even more absurd would be for the very body charged with maintaining the integrity of the game (the NCAA) to become involved in the decision process, and made that call based upon information other than the rule book and the evidence. Such action would defy the fundamental principle of competition…that victory is determined by play on the field. However, this is exactly what the NCAA is doing as it vacates a result on the field (the 2004 USC title victory) by allowing a preconceived notion of the “right” or “desired” outcome to determine the evidence that is used to justify that outcome. To clarify, I don’t have a problem with the NCAA vacating the victory if they determined that Reggie Bush accepted an Impala in December 2004, but I find it an abomination that the NCAA would use the results of the BCS title game to determine when Reggie Bush accepted the Impala.
If the BCS committee and the coaches poll are ever in the position to reconsider the outcome of the 2004 BCS title game, I would hope would demand some accountability form the NCAA in making their decision. Until then, I am simply a guy who is posting on “fan-based” blog, and quoting the NCAA “out of context”. The NCAA is too powerful to answer to a guy like me (or anybody else) to even clarify the proper context of their own statements.