Guest Article by A. SPLATTER
With the BCS having stripped the USC Football team of the 2004 National Championship title, and the USC athletic program having exhausted all their available appeals to the NCAA, it seems that the “Reggie Bush saga” will soon, mercifully, be ending. With this sense of closure, however modest it may be, perhaps we are in a better position to answer an important question: how can the NCAA possibly justify those sanctions imposed on USC as a result of the so-called “Reggie Bush saga?” My answer to this question isn’t altogether controversial: they can’t. I suspect most will agree with me. But, if not, in what follows, I’ll try to convince the skeptics of this point.
Assuming that many of you have followed the “Reggie Bush saga,” much of what follows in this paragraph will be most familiar to those reading. To some though, it will not be familiar. To put it briefly then, the NCAA found that, during his sophomore and junior seasons at USC, Reggie Bush and his family received cash and benefits worth roughly $291,000 from New Era Sports & Entertainment, a marketing agency headed by Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels. This is a violation of the relevant NCAA by-laws for athlete conduct. The NCAA also determined that Todd McNair, Bush’s position coach at USC, knew Bush received such benefits, and failed to report his knowledge to the NCAA. This, too, is a violation of the relevant by-laws for coach conduct.
Todd McNair, for his part in the “wrongdoing,” received a so-called “show cause” penalty, in which he is barred from contacting recruits for one year while working in an official capacity as a representative of an NCAA institution, USC or otherwise.
The sanctions levied by the NCAA on the USC Football program were more numerous and steep. The NCAA vacated all wins from the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons, including the 2004 BCS National Championship. The NCAA also reduced 30 scholarships for the football program over 3 years, thereby reducing 10 scholarships per year. The 2010 and 2011 USC Football teams were barred from any kind of postseason play. In addition to the substantial negative impact they will likely have on the competitiveness of the USC football team in the coming years, these sanctions, I assume, are also financially costly: the revenue lost as a result of both USC’s inability to play in bowl games and their inability to field a maximally competitive team likely will be in the millions.
Bush, Lake, and Michaels received no official sanctions from the NCAA for their wrongdoing. However, this may be misleading, and so two things should be mentioned. In the wake of the sanctions imposed against USC, Bush ultimately voluntarily forfeited his Heisman Trophy, presumably on account of some vague notions of violating the even vaguer integrity condition of the Heisman Trust Mission Statement. The NCAA also retroactively stripped Bush of his eligibility during the 04-05, 05-06 seasons.
Compared with those sanctions levied onto USC, and, to a lesser extent, Todd McNair, the complete absence of official sanctions against those directly involved in the wrongdoing strikes me as peculiar. Of course, there’s an obvious reason for this disparity: Bush, Lake, and Michaels are all outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction. By the time the NCAA concluded its investigation of Bush, USC, McNair, and New Era Sports & Entertainment, Bush was already in the NFL. Lake and Michaels were never within the NCAA’s jurisdiction. Accordingly, the enforcement arm of the NCAA was helpless to punish the principal offenders.
So why then crush USC? To me, that question is ill-defined, and, ultimately, of no real importance in evaluating the NCAA’s conduct. The NCAA just could have had a bone to pick with USC, and, seeing an opportunity, decided to go to town. What is important is whether the NCAA was justified in crushing USC as they did.
For any kind of enforceable rule, and for any violation of an enforceable rule, there seems at least one option available by which we could justify punishing a violation of that rule. We could justify the punishment consequentially: there is some good to be achieved by punishing the offenders. Is this option at all helpful in determining the NCAA’s actions was justified?
In talking about a consequential justification of punishment, let us assume that the “good” that is achieved by punishing USC is that it helps deter athletic programs at other colleges and universities from violating the same or similar NCAA rules. In other words, the NCAA’s punishment of USC is justified to the extent that it deters other athletic programs from breaking the rules. Assuming what I just said is true, then that still doesn’t seem to get the NCAA very far. This is because it seems clear that, given the kind of rampant rule-breaking that allegedly pervades big-time college football programs, penalizing programs for various rules violations does not significantly deter others programs from committing similar violations.
To one example of the failure what I will call “the deterrence effect,” we need only consider SMU football in the 80s. The NCAA killed the program, and even that – the so-called “death penalty” – doesn’t seem to have effectively stopped anyone – athletes, boosters, would-be marketers or agents – from engaging in the kinds of wrongdoing which the NCAA found Bush of doing. I admit that, in the case of SMU, the players were receiving cash and gifts by persons acting essentially as representatives of the SMU program, and not would-be sports marketers or agents like Lake or Michaels.
Perhaps a more appropriate example then is the more recent case of Terrelle Pryor and THE Ohio State University. Much like Bush, Pryor was accused of accepting benefits from a person not acting in any official capacity from the athlete’s institution. Also like in Bush’s case, it seems the most prominent members of the coaching staff were unaware of Pryor’s dealings. If USC’s penalties failed to deter an almost exactly similar situation with a similarly high-profile player at a similarly high-profile program like Ohio State, then this suggests the NCAA’s penalties are not so effective as a deterrent.
The case of Pryor and Tressel points towards an additional problem with trying to justify the NCAA’s punishment of USC according to its success as a mechanism for deterrence: it is unclear exactly what kind of behavior the punishment is intended to deter.
Recall that USC’s football program was punished not because it was paying Bush and his family or, with the exception of McNair, it knew about Bush’s being paid. Rather, it was punished because the NCAA determined that USC should have known that Bush and his family were receiving cash and gifts. Where USC erred in all this was that, according to the NCAA, USC failed to keep adequate tabs on Bush’s personal life. That said, let me briefly offer this: Was vacating one national championship, banning a program from two years of postseason play, and removing 30 scholarships from that same team commensurate punishment for a program’s failure to babysit a player? Moreover, and more importantly, are such strong penalties sufficient to compel other programs to now take steps to closely monitor the personal activities of their high-profile players? The case of Pryor and Tressel suggests otherwise. And to answer both these questions, I don’t think so. I’m sure some will find room to disagree.
 Here and elsewhere in this article, I use “wrongdoing” very loosely.
 In the following, I assume that USC violated some NCAA rule. It is debatable whether a failure to monitor Reggie Bush’s private dealings constitutes a violation of an NCAA rule.
 Tressel became aware of Pryor’s activities through e-mail only after such activities took place. For rest of the story, see: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/magazine/05/30/jim.tressel/index.html