At PAC-12 Media Day, the Ducks should come clean

Steve Andress is right.  He’s a sports reporter for KEZI television in Eugene, and yesterday he wrote an online story on the Will Lyles scandal that was as frank and balanced as anything I’ve read.  He laid out the case against Oregon in concise language, without the hysteria and chortling that characterizes many of the scandal-mongers who have taken their turn speculating about the Ducks’ future with the NCAA.  Small people and hack reporters delight in the misfortune of others.  They’re always wallowing in the sleaze, and sniffing the air for another putrid innuendo.  Andress did it the right way, impartial and accurate.

Just as Mike Bellotti mentioned in his interview with Jay Allen, it’s pretty clear the Ducks are facing sanctions.  Will Lyles didn’t meet NCAA standards for a legitimate recruiting service, and it was the Ducks’ responsibility to see that he did before paying off on a $25,000 invoice.  NCAA rules require scouting services maintain a published price list and present quarterly reports on prospects.  Lyles cut corners, and when he did, the Ducks were left in a bad position.

Worse yet, the NCAA is likely to rule that Lyles acted as a booster, a representative or agent of the Oregon program.  He accompanied the Oregon coaches on recruiting trips.  He introduced them to coaches and players, picked them up at the airport.  With the tacit and inappropriate cooperation and approval of Assistant Director of Football Operations Josh Gibson he arranged tutors for Oregon recruits, assisting LaMichael James in changing his residency to avoid the Texas state exam, assisting Lache Seastrunk in getting his grandmother named as his legal guardian.  Oregon can argue that these actions were taken to help the players attend any school, but the involvement of Gibson will make it a sticking point in the eyes of the NCAA.

Head Coach Chip Kelly’s attempt to get more documentation from Lyles in February isn’t a Jim Tressel-level coverup; it’s a natural response to an impending investigation rather than a sustained campaign of concealing the truth.  Anybody being investigated for anything, say a tax audit or OSHA compliance visit, is going to go through the boxes, straighten up the stack of pallets and call the accountant before the suits come to town.  But they did try to pretty things up.  A lot depends on how they presented themselves to the NCAA in March.

The form and severity could vary widely.  Boise State lost a few scholarships and some practice time.  Georgia Tech got a $100,000 fine, vacated a conference title and is on four years’ probation.  Neither got a bowl ban.  But USC lost 30 scholarships over three years, lost a national title and a Heisman trophy, and can’t play in a bowl for two years, 2010 and 2011.  At Ohio State, Jim Tressel was forced to resign in disgrace.  Outcomes are far from certain, because the NCAA doesn’t have to meet the standards of proof in a court of law, and they set the penalties.  It’s not based on precedent. There’s little attempt to be consistent.

Particularly worrisome for the Ducks is that they’ve been implicated in what is a hot-button issue for college football’s governing body.  Mark Emmert and his staff don’t want college football to go the way of college basketball, with wide-spread influence by street agents, shoe companies, AAU summer ball.  Which ignores the fact it’s already happened.  National combines, summer camps, traveling 7-on-7 leagues, and big-ticket scouting services have a huge, powerful influence on football recruiting, and penalizing or not penalizing Oregon won’t change that.  Unfortunately, the NCAA is not good at wide-scale reform. In all cases they seem to prefer to legislate by scapegoat, partly because they don’t truly want to change the lucrative equation of big-money college football, where schools, coaches, bowl committees and networks make a lot of money, and athletes work for room and board and a seat in freshman composition.  Oregon is in real danger of being made an example, simply because that’s easier than overhauling the system, or upsetting the delicate balance of spot checks and imbalance that keeps the dollars flowing.

Oregon cheated. They hired a guy who didn’t follow the rules or establish a proper paper trail.  They sent him an outsized payment for poorly-organized and undocumented information, and when it came to light, they didn’t have enough on paper and in the hard drives to tell a plausible story.  Lyles didn’t stay within the defined role of a scout.  He mentored and cut corners for the athletes. He did things on behalf of the school he had no business doing.

What’s an appropriate penalty? In one way it doesn’t matter.  The NCAA doesn’t worry about being proportionate.  Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has pull there.  Roy Kramer, head of the BCS, is the former Commissioner of the SEC.  They call the shots in college football.  It’s no accident penalties seem to increase as investigations work their way west.

Lyles assisted in the recruiting of three Oregon athletes, LaMichael James, Lache Seastrunk, and Dontae Williams, who has since transferred.  They paid him $25,000.  On Tuesday July 26th at the PAC-12 media day, Oregon should self-report and announce self-imposed sanctions.  They should propose four years probation, the length of eligibility of these athletes. They should penalize themselves three scholarships for four years.  They should submit to a fine of $100,000, with the money going to paralysis and spinal injury research.  Vacated wins are stupid, and that shouldn’t be part of the equation. Chip Kelly should stand at the podium and give a statement, politely answer 20 minutes of questions, and then he should be suspended for four games.  Oregon shouldn’t get a bowl ban, because Ohio State, West Virginia, Georgia Tech and Boise State haven’t been given one either.

I love the Ducks with all my heart.  But that’s exactly what should be done.

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