The State of the Union: 2011

 

As the dog days of summer retreat into the sunset, we are finally getting ready to engage the 2011 college football season! It has been a painfully long off season with the biggest news coming from professional lockouts, senseless beatings of sports fans, fights and shootings at exhibition NFL games, the battle for control and ability to make payroll of a storied baseball franchise, and now a clearly flawed NCAA system. Getting back to playing the game is what we now need. There is no question that we were already dealing with a broken system, but now, the NCAA must fight against legitimate claims of outright bias and incompetence.

Currently, eight top-tier programs have been investigated or sanctioned. The most anticipated early game of the season Oregon-LSU has been marred by the suspension of Oregon’s top defender, cornerback Cliff Harris, who was stopped for driving 118 mph with a suspended license along with Duck QB Darron Thomas in the car as well as some marijuana. LSU is dealing with the loss of two starters including starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson for a bar fight outside of a Louisiana bar, in which they broke curfew. The Trojans suspended senior running back Marc Tyler for at least the first game after a drunken rant that was captured on the gossip TV showTMZ.

The Miami Hurricanes program has come under a firestorm of criticism and scrutiny following convicted ponzi scheme booster Nevin Shapiro’s indictment of 72 Miami athletes, primarily football players including 12 on the current roster of impermissible benefits. Among the benefits Shapiro named were money, sex parties with prostitutes, an abortion, strip clubs, cars, jewelry, clothing, and bounties on opposing quarterbacks to knock them out of a football game. The definition of hypocrisy resides squarely with the former Miami athletic director as well as former chairman of the infractions committee Paul Dee who happened to preside over the iron fisted sanctions of USC’s football program. His comments included “high-profile athletes demand high-profile compliance” and he also emphatically stated that USC had the responsibility to know what was happening within the program. This is the same athletic director that was at the helm of the Hurricane program in 1995 when 57 players were implicated in a financial aid scandal that the Feds called “the largest centralized fraud upon the Federal Pell Grant program ever committed.” We are still waiting on the outcome from NCAA president Mark Emmert and the infractions committee on the current allegations. In 1995, the Hurricanes received a one year bowl ban and a loss of 24 scholarships even though the self-righteous Dee claimed that it was 31. USC is currently serving the 2nd year of no post-season bowl games including the first PAC-12 Championship game this fall as well as a reduction of 30 scholarships over three years starting next year. USC’s punishment revolved around one player and his parents receiving improper benefits and an assumption from the Infractions Committee that a USC assistant coach knew and that the athletic department and head coach had the responsibility to know. If the Miami program has not epitomized loss of institutional control, then I do not what possibly could.

Ohio State’s program has a changed a bit since last fall with the resignation of head coach Jim Tressel and the departure of quarterback Terelle Pryor to the Oakland Raiders. The Buckeyes have self-imposed sanctions vacating all of their 2010 wins and two years probation with no scholarship reductions or bowl bans. It is evident from the April 25th notice of allegations that the NCAA is only pursuing two lesser charges than USC’s “lack of institutional control” label. The first is preferential treatment for the six players that received impermissible benefits from a tattoo parlor and Tressel’s unethical conduct violation for covering up player benefits including receiving cash from boosters and later lying about it. There is no talk about Pryor’s multiple “loaner” cars from a Buckeye car dealer or his apology for his actions to the Buckeye nation. The NCAA should be ashamed of themselves for reinstating the Ohio State players prior to last year’s game against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.

Not that all the scandals just involved players and coaches. The Fiesta Bowl fiasco included the head rolling of longtime bowl CEO John Junker for charges of funneling money to politicians through bowl employees, an employee wedding, numerous personal gifts a visit to a Phoenix strip club and a 50th birthday party for himself all on the Fiesta Bowl’s dime.

It has become abundantly clear that USC’s sanctions were doled out so vigorously primarily because of a lack of responsiveness on all levels to the NCAA’s requests and not the act itself. It has become more evident in light of more recent scandals, which the NCAA wanted to make an example out of the USC program and justified it by claiming it “lacked institutional control.” We are seeing the current programs under investigation bending over backwards to cooperate with the NCAA and also self-sanctioning their programs. Compliance departments are growing all over the country to deflect the intensified scrutiny that is descending upon universities across the country at a rapid rate. It was easy for the NCAA to claim that USC lacked control because of Pete Carroll’s philosophy of having open practices that would often include a packed house. With no professional team in LA, USC also attracted celebrities to the program such as Will Ferrell, Snoop Dogg, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Henry Winkler just to name a few.

There is no easy answer in dealing with these challenges facing college athletics. There would already be a better system in place if it was that simple. As USC athletic director Pat Haden has stated, “consistency is all that we are asking for.” I do not believe that a modest increase in a stipend check would change much. I also don’t believe that paying football players would work very well with Title IX and the equality of all sports not to mention the rising cost of tuition for all college students. I believe that one way to handle it is to get the NFL more involved like Roger Goodell did in dealing with Terelle Pryor’s five game suspension. There should also be very specific punishment against agents and sports managers that are trying to lure players out early or are paying players while they are still in school. They should pay restitution and lose their licenses. In cases where there are boosters paying student athletes, there needs to be a very clear and concise process for sanctioning programs. The subjectivity needs to be taken out of the equation and I believe that there should be an independent party outside of the NCAA making the decisions. There has also been renewed talk that has been taking place for several years regarding the NCAA and it’s tax exempt status. This is relevant to the USC situation since it has been mentioned as a reason to reopen the examination on this issue. I also believe that universities would be much more incentivized in enforcing compliance if they faced stiff, seven-figure fines for boosters giving impermissible benefits and a tiered structure based on the penalties. Of course, the players would still have to be accountable but there would not be players paying the price five or six years after the impropriety.

At USC, the leadership has made clear the direction of the university as well as the football program. President Nikias and Pat Haden have communicated that it is time to move forward in dealing with NCAA and not going back to try to appeal the previous two decisions. There is no question that Pat Haden was the right choice at the right time to come in and lead the athletic department and football program through a very challenging time. It is unquestionably difficult to take the high road when there are other programs dealing with corruption of head coaches, numerous players, and in Miami’s case over 70, members of the coaching staff, and a former athletic director. There has been an outcry among the Trojan faithful to go after the NCAA and there is also been some rumbling that the leadership does not know how tough the next few years will be enduring the loss of scholarships. I don’t believe that is the case. You have some very astute minds working in the athletic department that have looked at this from all angles. President Nikias handpicked Haden to come in and restore the reputation of the University of Southern California. The position has been made clear; It is about winning but winning the right way, which is intended for a positive future and not denigrating the past. Haden has also implemented making the student athlete experience much more complete and well rounded for the young men and women. The Miami decision has not yet been rendered and it is premature to call for an onslaught against the NCAA. Have faith in the leadership at USC. President Nikias is on track to raise over $1 billion in his first year, USC passed UCLA last year in academic rankings for the first time, and USC has hired some of the top faculty from the some of the world’s best universities, including Stanford, Cal Berkeley, MIT, NYU, Cambridge, and Oxford just to name a few. There has been no complaining about the sanctions from the players, coaches, or athletic department. I do believe that President Nikias understands the significance in having a successful athletic program, especially football in his lofty fund raising initiatives.

Let’s not forget that it was not that long ago that the USC program had fallen into mediocrity with only one 10-win season from 1980 until Pete Carroll’s 2nd year in 2002. It was a little over a decade ago that I had a former teammate give me the moral victory speech after a narrow home loss to Florida State. The bar has been raised and the expectations for winning have been restored even in the face of the harshest sanctions handed out since SMU’s “death penalty.” It is time to stop complaining, put away the bitterness and resentment, and start looking ahead. The coaching staff signed another top-5 recruiting class and signed 31 players in 2011 in the face of these sanctions. The PAC-12 coaches have picked USC to win the newly minted South Division and the AP has the Trojans picked 25th in the country. These pre-season rankings really don’t matter. What does matter is that the team believes in the coaching staff and each other. There Is much to play for and it will be a tremendous challenge over the next three years with significantly fewer scholarships, an evolving conference, with better competition There is a lot of youth and added depth on this team which will be an important factor over next several years. Being a Trojan means walking with class, confidence and humility and never making excuses. It is an opportunity to rise up and come together as Trojan players, coaches, fans and alumni and to always Fight On! FIGHT ON!

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Shane Foley played quarterback for the Trojans from 1986-1990. He is a Private Banker for Wells Fargo in Pasadena, CA. He serves on the Executive Board for Pete Carroll’s A Better LA, Board of Councilors USC Dornsife College, USC Alumni Association Board of Govenors, and is involved in several other charities. He can be reached at TheFoleyReport@gmail.com, or at The Foley Report on Facebook