Sports Executive and Author

USC should sue Bush

THE BAY BLOG – August 13, 2010

Holding college athletes accountable: USC should sue Bush and Mayo

There’s a song by the rock band “Cinderella” which includes the lyrics, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Those words could easily apply to college athletics.  The last twenty years has seen what some would call a transformation in college football.  We have seen several different phases of conference re-alignment, multi-billion dollar television contracts, the formation of conference television networks and the growth and development of the Bowl Championship Series. Title IX has cleared the way for the unparalleled growth of women’s sports, and, in academics, eligibility depends upon actual progress toward a specific degree, and schools these days can even lose scholarships if their graduation rates of players aren’t sufficient.

In these areas, we will never go back.  But one issue which appears suspended in time is the age-old problem of unscrupulous sports agents stalking some of the nation’s best players, luring them into accepting money prior to graduation at the expense of their eligibility and possibly the achievements of their teams.

The most celebrated recent case is the NCAA’s flogging of Southern Cal for the school’s lack of institutional control with respect to football star, Reggie Bush, and basketball standout, O.J. Mayo, both of whom were the recipient of improper benefits from agents or promoters.  When the sanctions were announced the players had already fled the scene, but USC’s football team was forced to forfeit a 12-win season, and the teammates Bush left behind can’t play in a bowl game for the next two years.

The USC case has set off a rash of more NCAA sleuthing involving football players from Florida, Alabama and South Carolina.  Florida and the NCAA are looking at whether offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey (now with the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers) received $100,000 from a sports agent’s representative between the SEC championship game and the Sugar Bowl.  This possibility must send shivers up the spine of Crimson Tide coach, Nick Saban, who still has Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram on his current roster. If an agent or his so-called ‘runner’ did dangle a hundred grand in front of the unheralded Pouncey, what might they tempt superstar Ingram with?

For his part, Saban has labeled such unscrupulous agents as ‘pimps,’ who entice players illegally in an effort to ‘buy’ their loyalty when they can legally sign with a representative.

The National Football League (NFL) doesn’t like what is happening, but points out that players’ agents are regulated by the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), which has the authority to suspend or decertify agents.  Some states have laws under which agents can be criminally prosecuted if they make payments to college athletes that cause them to become ineligible.

But no matter how slimy the agents are, and regardless of the blanketing punitive measures the NCAA can inflict on the schools, or that the  NFLPA can inflict on the agents, or the criminal charges brought by the states – the most honest reaction is to lay the responsibility where it most belongs, at the feet of the guys who took the money. We keep acting as though these ‘kids’ are innocent victims, easy prey for the bad guys in the real world.  Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive said recently that the NCAA should change its philosophy for dealing with agents from one based on rules enforcement to a policy more focused on education. And Saban went on to lament that the situation is “entrapment for young people at a very difficult time in their life.”

All of this sounds very sweet and forgiving, but I thought one of the lessons of competitive sports was to teach individual accountability and responsibility to others.  Is there any high profile college athlete in America that doesn’t know he cannot accept money from a booster or a representative of a professional sports team?  Is there any football player who doesn’t know what has happened to USC and Reggie Bush – that his school has had to give back the Heisman Trophy and that his team had to forfeit 14 games?  Is there any player who doesn’t realize that he puts his entire team in jeopardy by cheating?

The most responsible statement about the current environment comes from University of Miami wide receiver LaRon Byrd, who said, “…I feel like those guys are being selfish, not looking out for the team…I would not put my teammates in danger, in jeopardy of losing games or damaging the program because I want to be greedy and take gifts or take things.” 

And from Heisman winner Mark Ingram, “We have a great program in our organization that teaches us how to deal with situations like that. Everybody is educated on how to deal with those situations…” Indeed. Over and above the education provided by the schools, the NCAA last spring sent a memorandum to many, if not all, Division I basketball players reminding them of what they could and could not do with respect to “testing the waters” of professional basketball.

In 1987 when I was serving as the athletics director at Ohio State, we had a returning All-American wide receiver who took money from an agent between his junior and senior years.  When I was tipped off, I questioned him. He denied taking anything. I warned him to tell me the truth, that if he took the money I would have to declare him ineligible – but that I would appeal to the NCAA for the restoration of his eligibility. However, I told him, if it was proven he had been paid, and he was lying to me, I would not appeal.  Of course, it was soon evident he had taken the money, and I did not appeal on his behalf – even though it was clear from a similar case at the University of Pittsburgh at the same time that he would have been reinstated.

To me it was the principle of holding the athlete accountable for his actions. It is the school and the players left behind that are the victims of NCAA sanctions in most eligibility cases involving agents. If the program has taken all reasonable measures to educate its athletes relative to the rules regarding agents, but one takes money anyway, a violation that puts the entire program in jeopardy – the school ought to bring legal action against him.

Why doesn’t USC sue Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo?  Both allegedly lied to investigators and both are now millionaires. Bush signed with the New Orleans Saints for $51 million over six years ($26.3 million of which is guaranteed) in a deal that could reach $62 million with incentives. Mayo will receive $4.5 million for his second NBA season in 2010-11.  These guys have money and used USC as a launching pad to showcase their talents. Surely the school could have done more to educate these guys and been more vigilant in monitoring their activities. And I find it very doubtful that the coaching staffs saw nothing that might raise questions as to what Bush and Mayo were up to.

Still, the deceitfulness of both athletes cannot be denied, and if the NCAA is going to make an example of USC, then USC ought to make examples of Bush and Mayo.

Why haven’t schools sought legal remedies against dishonest athletes in the past? One reason is that schools are loath to do anything that suggests a stronger legally binding contractual relationship than now exists between the university and its student athletes. There have been one or two court cases in the past where injured athletes have brought legal action against their schools claiming that the scholarship agreement renders them ‘employees’ of the athletics department and, therefore, eligible for workman’s compensation.

No university athletics program wants that.  But I think it is fair to hold college athletes accountable for their actions. Some agents are scumbags to be sure, but the athletes that do business with them and put schools and teammates in harm’s way are not much better.



This space is dedicated to Rick Bay's musings on the most current events and issues in sports.

Question or Comment?
Email Rick
Use this Form

Website Builder