Take back the title
USC should forfeit the 2004 national crown after reports that Reggie Bush and his family appear to have accepted financial benefits from prospective agents.By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports September 14, 2006
LOS ANGELES – The would-be agents who provided the house, the money for the tricked-out car, the luxury hotel rooms and the tens of thousands in cash used to roll right into the Southern California locker room after the game, right past security, to meet and greet the triumphant Trojans.
The marketing agent who provided the cash allowance, the plane flights, the limo rides and the designer suits used to hang around Trojan practices, filed paperwork with the athletic department and walked the sidelines of the Los Angeles Coliseum like he was Pete Carroll himself.
It is no surprise that Reggie Bush and his family cashed in on his future earnings during his Heisman Trophy career at USC, as so many allege. Finding eager agents willing to pay for an edge on representing him was easy; they were all over the place at the loose ship known as Trojan Football.
At practice. At games. In the locker room. At the football program's Heritage Hall. Even with permission of the athletic department's compliance office.
And so Bush and his parents, starting in October 2004 according to an eight-month Yahoo! Sports investigation, took and took and took.
And now the NCAA needs to take something, too – Bush's retroactive eligibility and a season and a half of USC victories, setting in motion the BCS' removal of the Trojans' 2004 national championship and the Downtown Athletic Club's repossession of Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy.
Anything less, any bit of situational justice, would be a slap in the face of fair play and another in the NCAA's long history of double-standard enforcement.
Bush, by NCAA standards, was a professional athlete for most of his final two seasons, and USC either knew it or sure as heck should have. At the very least, operating an open-gate culture where athletes and agents were allowed to mix and mingle in the inner sanctums of the program was akin to playing with fire.
And in this case the Trojans got burned.
No one is saying Bush and USC were the only ones on the take. No one is saying the NCAA's amateurism rules are good ideas. Those are debates for another day.
But if the NCAA is going to ride the public relations campaign that its student-athletes are pure then it needs to enforce its rules purely.
Even – or especially – if it means stripping a Division I-A football team of its national title for the first time in history.
The double-barrel allegations of Bush and his family receiving NCAA-prohibited extra benefits from the fledgling New Era Sports & Entertainment agency in San Diego and Mike Ornstein, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based marketing agent who wound up representing Bush, rock USC to its core.
The New Era gifts push the timetable of violations into the Trojans' 2004 national championship season. The Ornstein benefits prevent plausible deniability by USC – a common and often effective defense to the NCAA.
First, there was the $757,500 house that New Era allowed Bush's family to use. When originally reported in April by Yahoo! Sports, Bush claimed he had no knowledge of the deals and no ties to New Era. But documents obtained by Yahoo! Sports – one showing Bush's signature on a March 2005 luxury hotel bill paid by the credit card of one of New Era's founders – tell a different story. That link puts USC's title in jeopardy.
Then there is Ornstein, one of dozens of agents, marketing men and other hanger-ons who were familiar faces around the program the past few years, who was welcome at Carroll's practices.
It's damning enough that two sources claim USC assistant Todd McNair knew of New Era's relationship with Bush, that Bush himself believed Carroll was going to investigate the situation and began covering it up and that New Era representatives were welcome in the Trojan locker room during the 2005 season.
With Ornstein it is worse. It's not just that Ornstein is a convict who in 1995 pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud for defrauding the NFL and that Ornstein, in possible violation of NCAA statutes, admits he negotiated contracts for Bush during the 2005 season or that the credit card of an Ornstein employee was used to pay for flights and limo rides to the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton for Bush's family during the weekend of the USC-Cal game.
It's that Ornstein didn't operate in the shadows to offer USC a convenient "How could we know?" excuse.
Ornstein was so up front he even worked with the USC compliance office in May of 2005 to set up a paid internship at his company for Bush and other Trojan players.
"We went through SC, went through the compliance office," Ornstein said. "We are allowed to pay the guy for 20 hours a week, $8 an hour. All of the paperwork is filed. It was just something we wanted to do to help Pete Carroll because they always are looking for summer jobs."
So a convicted marketing agent approached the USC compliance office, which is supposed to monitor potential violations, and offered to "help" Carroll by employing his mega-talented future first-round draft pick, and no one thought, gee, this might be not be a good idea?
Carroll, who spent 16 seasons as an NFL coach, surely not only knew Ornstein personally, but he also knew of Ornstein's reputation as a hard-driving sort who had defrauded the NFL. Ornstein is a heck of a marketing guy – Bush's multitude of deals proves that – but he is the kind of person that you don't dare ship your tailback off to and figure nothing bad can come of it.
To do so is inexplicable. That may be why USC refused to explain it to Yahoo! Sports, citing concurrent Pac-10 and NCAA investigations into the case.
"To be quite honest with you, when we took Reggie on we didn't have in our mind that we were going to try to get him as a client," Ornstein claimed.
Which is quite believable … if you are as stunningly naive as the Trojan athletic department.
While having a student-athlete intern for a sports marketing agency is not necessarily a violation of NCAA rules, this scenario is a violation of common sense.
It is no surprise that it led to Ornstein doling out payments of over $1,500 per week to Bush's family as well as numerous other gifts, as business associate Bob DeMartino said Ornstein told him. Or that Ornstein wound up making cash payments directly to Bush, as New Era's Lloyd Lake says Bush told him.
Ornstein vehemently denies these claims – "That never happened. It's (expletive)," he said – although he admits Bush's family "may have" taken extra benefits from New Era in 2004.
As for the luxury weekend in San Francisco for the Cal game, Ornstein said Bush's parents may have paid back his employee, Jamie Fritz, which, however unlikely, would still be a NCAA violation.
All in all, you have a textbook case of agents run amok in a program.
Whether USC's failure to monitor and protect its players was an example of nefarious activity or gross incompetence hardly matters. Neither does the school's recent moves to strengthen its oversight of players, a tacit admission of past errors.
The result is the same: Bush's amateur status was compromised beginning in October of 2004. Per NCAA rules, any game he played in after that could result in forfeiture. The Trojans' lack of institutional control played a part in this mess.
Moreover, it wasn't just Bush who benefited from the agent's largesse. So too did USC. Carroll has signed Rivals.com's No. 1 recruiting class in each of the past three seasons, and if you don't think having Bush walking campus flushed with cash while driving a decked-out car doesn't make an impression on would-be Trojans, then you don't know anything about recruiting.
Bush may be gone, but a lot of kids who wanted to be him – in every single way – have powered USC to No. 4 in the current AP poll.
USC, with its tradition, huge fan base and major media market, epitomizes the kind of big-time franchise the NCAA never wants to really take on.
The NCAA has stripped seven sports teams of their national titles, most recently the 2002 Hawaii men's volleyball team for using ineligible players who took far less than Reggie Bush did. But that's volleyball and that's Hawaii. Small potatoes compared to this.
The fear has always been that by vacating a national championship, the NCAA would be telling the American public that the season it just witnessed was a fraud. But the same thing applies when clear standards aren't held, when the kids who didn't take are played the fool.
Besides, what's right is right, what's fair is fair.
If the NCAA wants us to believe it stands for anything other than making money off these kids, if it wants us to think that the rule book isn't just an empty public relations ploy, then it needs to drop the hammer here.
Forfeit the victories. Return the trophies. Vacate that title.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Friday, Sep 15, 2006 6:00 pm, EDT