Will Lyles decision imminent: Oregon will avoid the hammer, free to go back to the business of winning

A decision has been reached in the NCAA’s investigation of Will Lyles and the Oregon coaches, and Oregon fans are going to like the result. 

Official statements should be in a few weeks or less. Until then, everything is off the record, and the Athletic Department can’t comment publicly. The NCAA never comments on pending investigations.

The Ducks will lose one or two scholarships for three years, have some restrictions on recruiting and be placed on probation for five years.

They’ll avoid the hammer, penalties like a bowl ban, rescinded titles or vacated wins. Those “looming sanctions” will no longer loom so ominously.

Fans of other schools around the PAC-12 will be moaning that the Ducks got a slap on the wrist, but the ruling feels appropriate and reasonable. The investigation took so long that UO deserves some credit for time served.

For over two years, columnists and color analysts have pounded away with accusations and innuendo, dire predictions of the death penalty, the collapse of Oregon football, sneers that Chip Kelly played fast and loose with the rules and left a mess behind him. Opposing coaches used the specter of harsh penalties on the recruiting trail. Every telecast of Duck football mentioned Will Lyles and the investigation, often in the lead-in. It was a tarnish on the Oregon brand, a slander, an ugly half-secret, a stain.

It fueled message board banter and loomed over two seasons and three recruiting classes.

Having it over, having a decision that instructs and corrects and places the whole thorny mess of street agents and recruiting services in a context with clearer guidelines just feels right.

And it’s a relief to know that the Ducks avoided being a scapegoat, having their program ruined merely for the NCAA to reassert its authority after the Miami debacle and questions about athlete safety and exploitation, charges that the new playoff format didn’t go far enough.

Soon the Ducks can go back to the business of winning and competing, no longer dogged by questions and hypothetical hammers.

In practical terms, the penalties levied are extremely livable. Oregon hasn’t maxed out on scholarships in a given year for several seasons, and with attrition, early enrollees, early entries to the NFL, and an occasional gray shirt, the Ducks could stay under the cap without seriously affecting their depth or readiness in the next three seasons. Lifting the cloud over the program has so many benefits that the restrictions seem almost welcome.

There’s a strong commitment under Mark Helfrich to recruiting within the rules, to trust the evaluation process and the staff’s ability to develop players.

They don’t need to cheat to win the PAC-12 and be competitive nationally. The system that’s in place, the philosophy of speed, preparation and focusing every day, is strong enough on its own and self sustaining. There’s an atmosphere of winning, players who are leaders and achievers, who speak with one goal and one voice.

Oregon doesn’t need Will Lyles or anyone like him. It never has.

But do you want the truth? You can’t handle the truth. Every college football program in the NCAA, except maybe Army and Princeton, is a little bit dirty. Athletes get special privileges and secret deals. There are envelopes and apartments and cars and Visa cards arranged through a relative. With a few pointed questions and a little digging, an NCAA investigator or ambitious reporter could bring down Alabama, USC, Oregon or Ohio State in a few weeks. 

It doesn’t happen because the game is too big and there’s too much money. People love the color and pageantry of college football, the traditions, the thrill of rooting for their school. They look away from the sordid part and the secret arrangements, and hope their moneyed alumni don’t get too ambitious and attract the serious heat. Ex-athletes practice the code. Nobody ever talks openly about what they got, how they were taken care of. Do you think Kirk Herbstreit went through Ohio State on four years of tuition, room and board and books? How about Craig James at SMU, or Robert Smith or Brock Huard?

Bear Bryant knew his players were being paid at Alabama. He just didn’t want them to be paid more than the going rate, and he wanted to be sure he had four big left tackles for the depth chart.

Fans skip over this part because it’s inconvenient, and it detracts and distracts from the narrative of inspired amateurs competing valiantly for their schools, for the love of the game. But everybody wants to get paid. They all want the pro contract and a little something to keep them going.

Nobody asks the questions. During their last seasons competing in the Willamette Valley a heartwarming story came out, that LaMichael James and Oregon State’s twin stars, the Rodgers brothers, had developed a friendship. They kept in contact by social media and met once a week for dinner at Ruby Tuesdays.

The average bill for three at Ruby Tuesdays would be around 50 bucks. Who had money out of their stipend to swing that?

Duck fans love LaMichael James. They loved watching him run, watching him do his little frog jump in the end zone after a touchdown. His story, a smallish guy from a tumbleweed town in Texas, a kid with a big heart and the toughness to reset his own elbow on the way back to the huddle, a boy who lost the grandmother who’d raised him at 16 and often didn’t have any food in the house, is remarkable for its triumph and courage.

Fans love college football and root for our heroes. We’ve all just learned to look away when the bill gets scooped off the table, and when the investigators come to town, we only answer the questions that are asked.

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