USC football watchers have sometimes complained that athletic director Pat Haden and university president Max Nikias have been far too conciliatory in their attitude towards the draconian penalties the NCAA levied against the USC Trojans for trusting Reggie Bush to know the rules. News that Pennsylvania's lawsuit has successfully prompted the NCAA to soften sanctions against Penn State will provoke more second-guessing from USC's aggreived fanbase about Haden's decision to abandon a robust legal defense against the NCAA.
Haden's position is unenviable. He has to handle with dignity a debacle that was not of his creation. He has to do so by striking a balance between the humility demanded by the NCAA and the pride of a demanding fan base whose motto -- 'Fight On!' -- does not square with bowing and scraping. And he has to do all this with the cool professionalism demanded by his job title.
But with USC fans watching Ohio State and Oregon get off lightly for violations as egregious as or worse than that for which USC was hammered on Bush's behalf, Haden's and Nikias's tepid responses have been neither bellicose nor heartfelt enough to satisfy a Trojan faithful desperate for the smallest sign that the school's administration shares their concerns that an injustice occured.
Though it was without the proven knowledge of his coaches that Bush and his parents received illegal benefits from a rogue agent, the NCAA still justified multiyear postseason bans and scholarship reductions by asserting the coaches should have known. Now deceased University of Miami athletic director Paul Dee, then head of the NCAA infractions committee, infamously puffed, "High profile athletes demand high profile compliance."
At the time, the penalties Dee levied on USC in 2010 were the harshest since football powerhouse SMU was destroyed following its 1986 player payment scandal -- though Penn State's four-year bowl ban in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation cover-up would eclipse both punishments.
USC fans watched with frustration as they learned Dee's USC-only 'compliance' standard did not apply to Auburn, cleared by the NCAA in 2011 after Cam Newton's father shopped his son's services. That same year, Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel was condemned for lying to the NCAA about his knowledge of player payment violations; nevertheless, Ohio State received only a one year bowl ban and the loss of only nine scholarships.
Either not knowing is worse than actually knowing and lying about it according to the NCAA, or Dee's NCAA simply carried out an witch hunt against USC, unprecedented in its bias.
The increasingly obvious prejudice prompted the L.A. Times to ridicule the Ohio State "head slap" in comparison to USC's "kick to the groin" but Haden merely shrugged and referenced USC's previous appeals. "We were disappointed with the results," he said. It might have made more sense for USC to plead its case to a third-party court rather than appealing to the same group of unsympathetic NCAA rapscallions responsible for persecuting the Trojans in the first place. But Haden couldn't be bothered.
"We have gotten beyond that," he told the Times, "and are moving forward."
Except not really. USC's football program has continued to move backwards as NCAA's disproportionate discipline has damaged depth, recruiting, and USC's reputation as an attractive landing-spot for talented players and personnel. Meanwhile, major violations at other major football powers -- Oregon, Texas Tech, Alabama, and ironically Paul Dee's own Miami -- have popped up.
Only the Oregon case has yet been fully resolved, and its resolution was a doozy. Despite three years of what the NCAA described as "major violations" under former Oregon coach Chip Kelly -- including school directed player payment -- the NCAA declined to give Nike's favorite college even a bowl ban.
The discrepancy shocked ESPN's Ted Miller:
Look: Everybody knows USC got screwed by the NCAA. Not just in the 'In my opinion, the sanctions for the Reggie Bush case were too severe' way, but in the 'The process was corrupt and the judgment unjustifiable' way.
But when Miller confronted Haden about it, Haden told Miller, "Let it go." A more passionate athletic director and university president would have at least considered supporting USC assistant coach Todd McNair's defamation lawsuit against the NCAA, especially since McNair's lawsuit is showing how the NCAA is desperate to keep sealed a trove of documents indicating Dee and NCAA staffers deliberately mishandled the Bush case.
Sadly, it has been left to Penn State to do the heavy lifting against the NCAA's tyranny. No one can argue that what happened at Penn State was anything less than an inexcusable abdication human decency that surpassed sports. But Penn State and state lawmakers still sued over the NCAA's involvement in what the plaintiffs believe is a criminal matter outside the jurisdiction of NCAA oversight.
In response, Penn State's lengthy legal battle has finally forced the NCAA to fold under the weight of its own contradictions. The NCAA announced today that not only will it begin restoring scholarships to Penn State, but that it is also open to reducing the postseason ban pending future developments.
If the distinct favoritism shown to Auburn, Oregon, and Ohio State weren't enough to annoy USC fans, they will surely throw up hands in disgust as they contrast the differences between Penn State's full-throated defense of its football tradition with the apathy of Haden and Nikias. USC has an academic mission that is much bigger than football, which cannot and should not be the university's top priority.
However, Nikias is put to shame by Penn State's president, who was personally involved in making sure the current litigation was successful. If the governor of Pennsylvania can file suit against the NCAA in solidarity, surely Nikias can throw a bone of support to fan base whose passion generates over $80 million in revenue despite on-field mediocrity.
USC's administrative powerbrokers should take a cue from their counterparts at Penn State, who clearly understand how to manage the shortcomings of their predecessors without bending over.