Friday, September 15, 2006

Who said L.A. doesn't have a pro football team? I can't imagine a less interesting story than how much money Reggie Bush made in college. Strip SC of the '04 Title? Take away his Heisman Trophy? Sorry, can't be done: those honors have already been awarded. This ain't like taking the Tour de France from a juiced champion, where there is a direct link between the cheating and the championship. You can punish USC all you want, but they still kicked Sooners' ass in the '05 Orange Bowl, and they still beat Michigan to win the '04 title. And Reggie Bush was still the best player during the 2005 season. Even if the NCAA could get Bush to cooperate with their investigation, and was motivated to send a message to the Trojans, the Sooners are still going to trail by five touchdowns.

The allegations raised in the article can be divided into two categories: payments to Bush's family by his current agent, Mike Ornstein, and payments by a spurned wannabe agent in 2005. The Ornstein payments are mainly for benefits that, while they may have given him an unfair advantage in recruiting Bush, seem entirely appropriate just from a sense of plain decency. For example, one of the allegations concerns flying Bush's family to see him play a game up in Berkeley last season; another one deals with an advance Bush received to purchase a suit to wear for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Together, those payments barely reach a thousand dollars, and were made at a time when Bush was an employee of the sports agency. The payments made by the wannabe agent are a great deal sleazier, and involve trips to Las Vegas and tens of thousands of dollars in non-essentials.

There have been also counter-allegations that there were attempts to extort Bush by the people surrounding the wannabe agent, and under such circumstances, it wouldn't be surprising if some of the documentation that is allegedly supporting the Yahoo story was fabricated. In fact, Yahoo hedges their bets on quite a bit on this story; the article is replete with references to how payments "appear to have been received" or "appear to have been accepted", weasel words that strongly indicate skepticism about the reliability and honesty of their sources.

My two favorite college teams are CAL, my alma mater, and Michigan. In the early '90's, both programs had, at different levels, great basketball teams, which it turned out were assembled using very dubious means. Both programs were hit with probation, and neither program has approached that level since then, and there is indeed some question as to whether they can contend for the national title playing by "the rules." But I have yet to meet a single Bears fan who rues the day the school went on probation in 1998; CAL still knocked two-time defending champions Duke out of the '93 tournament, and went to the Sweet Sixteen that year and again in 1997. So it was worth it. And the Fab Five? Does anyone even know they were stripped of all their victories in 1992 and 1993? The important thing is, they went to the Finals twice.

Of course, none of the advances allegedly made to Reggie Bush constitute a crime, or would even be considered unethical outside the bizarro world of college sports. That's the big problem with enforcing the malum prohibitum regulations of the NCAA; if the crime doesn't directly relate to the essence of the sport, the winning-and-losing on the field, the fans, alums and boosters aren't going to give a rat's ass about whether or not this sort of "cheating" takes place (academic fraud, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish entirely, since it involves the exploitation of athletes, the misappropriation of tax money and the betrayal of the institutional mission of the university). In football, it's even harder to care, since there technically isn't even a "national champion" in the sport; the honor, as such, is awarded by the polls and the BCS. The issue isn't whether SC "cheats" to win; it's why other programs (are you listening, CAL?) aren't trying hard enough to match them. [link via LA Observed]


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