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Southern Cal, Ohio State And Auburn. One Is Not Like The Second, Or The Other

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Now that the Infractions Appeals Committee has made its finding and released a public report on the appeal filed by Southern Cal, the NCAA's case against USC for violations regarding (but not exclusive to the conduct of) Reggie Bush and OJ Mayo has come to a conclusion. The violations found, and the resulting sanctions levied against the Trojans has understandably sparked much discussion throughout the world of college football. The broader conversation has not simply been limited to those who love or hate USC, and at a time when several other major programs have seen their players and coaches allegedly run afoul of NCAA regulations, the judgment coming out of the NCAA's investigation of Southern Cal been viewed through a far broader prism than simply that single institution.

Members of the Southern Cal community as well as some in the sports media world have made the claim of 'unequal justice'; that the NCAA's case against USC was unfair, an example of unequal treatment disfavoring the Trojans. In furthering this claim, the recent allegations of wrongdoing against Auburn and Ohio State have been raised, in that the current lack of punishment against these programs is an example of the NCAA's unfair treament of USC. Other (slightly more aware) folks have looked ahead to claim that the NCAA won't take significant action and use these predictions to further the Trojan victim mentality,  while another group sees such cases currently on the NCAA's radar as a litmus test for the Association - will they come down hard on Ohio State, Auburn and any other school running afoul of the bylaws.

What has been lost on some members of the college football world, whether residing in South Central, or watching from afar, is that these three cases are quite distinct from one another. The underlying allegations, innuendo and known facts differ, as do the types of violations - and even the division of the NCAA that takes action. Additionally, the timeline of these cases are all different; for example, the current investigation against Ohio State is still in a relatively early stage. A comparable point in the USC investigation would have been a couple of years before the imposition of penalties, and it is unfair to lay the current lack of 'punishment' against the NCAA on this point.

First off, here is a refresher of the facts of the Southern Cal violations, as well as a timeline of the violations as well as of the investigation. In December 2004, the first of a series of exchanges of money and other benefits (18 such transactions according the the NCAA) occurred between an agent seeking to represent Reggie Bush, Bush and Bush's family. In 2007, it was alleged that then-USC basketball coach Tim Floyd gave money to an associate of then-commit OJ Mayo. Throughout Mayo's recruitment and tenure at USC, allegations that his collegiate eligibility was compromised ran rampant, concluding with the NCAA's finding that Mayo had taken money from the representative of a sports agent on at least 12 occasions from 2006-08. The NCAA's case also included a member of the Women's tennis team improperly using an athletic department phone code to make several thousand dollars worth of international phone calls without cost to the student-athlete between the fall of 2006 and spring 2009.

The NCAA's investigation did not begin until the initial report by Yahoo Sports brought the relationship between Bush, his family, wanna-be agents Michaels and Lake, and the basis of the relationship with actual agent Mike Ornstein to light in the fall of 2006. The NCAA staff began investigating soon after, and later combined its investigation with that of OJ Mayo and his time at USC. During the investigation, violations attributed to the women's tennis program came to light,as well as an additional violation regarding then-coach Pete Carroll hiring an extra assistant coach over the NCAA-mandated maximum. The investigation wrapped in fall 2009, leading to a Fabruary 2010 infractions hearing, and a June 2010 COI decision.

Auburn's matter of alleged NCAA ill-repute stems from the recruitment of Cam Newton to the university. Newton originally committed to the University of Florida, which he left after one season on not-so-good terms to attend a Texas JC. In Texas, he became arguably the best JC player in the country and attracted the attention of several major programs, including Mississippi State and Auburn, to whom he committed and enrolled in time for the Fall 2010 season. In November 2010, allegations regarding a demand made by Newton's father for $180,000 from Mississippi State in exchange for his son's commitment to that institution surfaced. The NCAA allowed Newton to continue playing after a brief investigation, arousing the anger of not only opponents of the Tigers in the SEC and the BCS title game, but Trojans who saw this as the NCAA 'again' favoring one of its favorites (as an SEC school) over them.

What has often been lost in the discussion of Auburn and the Cam Newton recruitment is the organizational structure of the NCAA and its enforcement regime. While this may seem a minor detail, this is, in fact a significant factor in how a case is handled. The type of case that the Newton allegations appeared to be - the possible ineligibility of an active student-athlete, is as a matter of routine handled by the NCAA's student-athlete reinstatement staff. This department of the NCAA has handled any number of players who have seen their eligibility at issue, from Newton to Dez Bryant, to Matt Leinart and Dwayne Jarrett. The staff that investigates and makes decisions regarding the eligibility of active players is separate from the staff that normally investigates major violations and the independent volunteers that judge such cases - though a reinstatement investigation can later lead to a major violations case. Here, members of this staff investigated and released a report discussing what they were able to uncover - that Newton's father and a third-party did attempt to profit from Cam's recruitment in regard to at least one school, but that the NCAA was not able to find that Cam or Auburn knew of the scheme. As NCAA VP Kevin Lennon stated at the time of the confirmation of Newton's eligibility:

"In determining how a violation impacts a student-athlete’s eligibility, we must consider the young person’s responsibility. Based on the information available to the reinstatement staff at this time, we do not have sufficient evidence that Cam Newton or anyone from Auburn was aware of this activity, which led to his reinstatement.

It is certainly fair to question whether the student-athlete reinstatement staff's investigation is a full and complete accounting of the facts surrounding this set of circumstances; personally, I have had issue with some of their findings and sanctions (or lack of), such as in the Bryant and Jarrett cases.What we have to remember is that the NCAA staff, whether it be the reinstatement staff or the top investigators can only act given the evidence that they are able to uncover. There is no subpoena power, and unraveling a web of violations can take several months, if not years. In cases regarding current eligibility, especially when an allegation arises in-season, there is a need to come to a quick conclusion that might not reflect the same level of investigation that could take place in the offseason. Something to keep in mind regarding this case is that it is not necessarily over; as Ohio State is in the process of discovering, the main NCAA investigators can continue an investigation after an initial eligibility review has taken place. If credible evidence comes to the NCAA's attention that Cam Newton and/or Auburn did have knowledge of the 'pay-for-play' scheme, the Committee on Infractions can become involved. As a reminder, it took nearly two years after the initial payments to Bush's family before Yahoo Sports had enough evidence to publish its initial expose on 'Bushgate', and another three and a half years for the COI to make its judgment.

As I mentioned earlier, Ohio State has its own date with the Committee on Infractions coming up. One of the more notable things happening with this Ohio State case is how quickly things are happening, once the first hints of violations came to light, including the forced resignation of head coach Jim Tressel. The initial evidence of misconduct by Ohio State student-athletes came to light in December 2010, when it became known that 5 current players had sold and/or traded memorabilia to the owner of a Columbus tattoo parlor, leading to a brief investigation by Ohio State and the NCAA student-athlete reinstatement staff (those guys again...) resulting in a 5-game suspension for the guilty players, delayed until the start of the 2011 season. While preparing an appeal on behalf of the 5 players, athletic staff at tOSU discovered a series of emails dating to the spring of 2010, written to Tressel by a former Buckeyes player with knowledge of the case.

The disclosure of the emails led to the start of an NCAA investigation, leading to a scheduled date with the COI in August. A parallel series of investigations by local and national media have uncovered even more allegations against the relationship between players and members of the community, as well as against Tressel himself, leading to his Memorial Day resignation. This week's Sports Illustrated features a feature report on Tressel and Ohio State football that dates back a series of impermissible memorabilia sales and trades back several years; while it was an open secret among members of the team, and people in the Ohio State and greater Columbus community may have had suspicions, it was not until the Terrelle Pryor et al sales came to light, and the following news of a Tressel-led coverup that the NCAA had the opening and sufficient evidence to investigate and put forward a case. Just as people following the AAU and prep basketball scene 'knew' that OJ Mayo was dirty in terms of NCAA eligibility, but sufficient evidence did not become available until after his time at USC, people 'knew' that some Ohio State players were likely not on the up-and-up, but 'knowing' of a violation is not the same thing as having knowledge of a violation.

When looking at the now-concluded case against Southern Cal, as well as the allegations against Auburn regarding the Cam Newton recruitment and the scandal now engulfing Ohio State, it is clear that taking this group together - at least at the present time - to make a judgment against the NCAA is unfair and an inaccurate portrayal of the state of the NCAA's enforcement regime.