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So We All Gather Here For The Dearly Departed

In a just world, USC basketball would have something in common with SMU football in the near future.

The death penalty.

Pat Forde,, "USC, Tim Floyd Have No Excuse for Turning a Blind Eye"

Though there's much more in the column, the lead says it all. But is Pat Forde right?

Unsurprisingly, how you answer that question depends greatly on which section of the bleachers you occupy. From my perch, four points strike me worth raising:

1. Half the story is no story at all. At least facially, Pat Forde's argument stands on firm ground: "Repeat NCAA offenders get the death penalty. USC is a repeat offender. QED: USC deserves the death penalty."

But such an argument contains what I think to be a problematic assumed premise: that the universe within which this situation resides is orderly and systematic. Put another way, transgressions are defined not merely by that which the system prohibits, but also the extent to which the system enforces the rules.

And here, there's a case to be made that in the aggregate, factoring in all the elements of big money collegiate sports, the universe of NCAA amateurism oftentimes more approximates a Hobbesian state of nature than an ordered society governed by enforced rules. Whatever USC's sins in carelessness and stupidity, the more fundamental underlying issue - boosting amateurs - is one the NCAA has proven itself incapable of regulating with meaningful consistency. Thus, to the extent that the very concept of amateurism in the big money NCAA systems of football and basketball are a farce, eruptions of self-congratulatory finger-wagging at one particular transgressor - notable mostly for being so stupid as to be caught in the flimsiest of nets - seem a fine case of squaring the circle.

In that sense, mounting the pulpit to lecture exclusively about dropping the hammer on USC seems a bit like a team of doctors employing a tourniquet on a gushing artery without any discussion of, or plan to, operate thereafter. There is an important conversation to be had about the amateur athlete situation in big money sports, but it may be as much institutional (NCAA) as institutional (USC).

2. Yeah, but we won't. A real conversation about amateur athletes in money-making sports may well be in order, but don't hold your breath. Because such a conversation necessarily would include truthful, fair, and realistic discussion about race, class, and the entrenched interests the system already favors.

And though I'm not masochist enough to dive into that conversation in this space myself, I can guarantee that even the mere mention of the topic heats the blood of some folks straight to a boil.

Whether or not an in-depth conversation about such difficult topics is possible, for now it suffices to say that perhaps no entity contributes more to, or profits more from, the exploitation of amateur athletes than ESPN - a point I mention not to judge capriciously the merits and demerits of their business, but to suggest that this story is only partly about OJ Mayo, his shady handler, and USC. In a more robust dialogue about this complex issue, a thorough list of actors to subpoena would include the professional sports agencies who game the system, the NCAA who (through its inaction) lets them, and the broadcasting giants who derive profit from the very stardom/professionalism that they in large part create but which the rules purport to prohibit.

3. A penny for your thoughts, Mr. Garrett? Philosophical caveats acknowledged and filed in the record, this Mayo scandal is pretty damn entertaining. Whatever you think about sports amateurism and the regulation thereof, this particular episode of candid camera is irresistibly comical.

Imagine for a moment that you're USC's athletic director, Mike Garrett. To secure such a job undoubtedly means you have a better-than-average understanding of the collegiate athletics landscape in general, and the big money sports in particular. It would be impossible, then, to be unaware of all the leeches and opportunists crowded 'round the periphery of NCAA competition, eager, willing, and able to capitalize on the valuable commodity that is the future professional athlete.

Now imagine that OJ Mayo is headed to play basketball for your school. Yes, that OJ Mayo, whose NBA jersey your eight year old nephew included on his Christmas list assuming (not unreasonably) Mayo was already a pro.

After you finished trying to explain to your nephew that ESPN's coverage of an athlete was not, in fact, determinative of an athlete's professional status, you'd probably turn your attention to the question of OJ Mayo's impending year as a USC Trojan. You think you might spend some time putting together a plan to ensure this superstar's one year at USC wasn't a problematic one for the university?

Let's bypass answering that rhetorical question and put it to Mr. Michael Garrett himself: "Hey, Mike. Recent polls have shown that while 98 percent of Americans were able to predict that OJ Mayo would need some managing to keep separated from opportunists working for agents, only a fifth of Americans can find California on a map. What the hell happened here?"

Mike Garrett explains the OJ Mayo mess. Not enough maps, I'd say.

4. Stoning the enemy is always fun, even from a glass house. Across town from the unfolding South Central nightmare, the princes of Westwood are enjoying every salacious detail that emerges from this story. Understandably so. If asked to choose my five favorite days in BON history, I'd undoubtedly include among them the day Mr. Bomar pulled a Bomar. Indeed, there are few satisfactions as fulfilling as schadenfreudian satisfaction.

While I unequivocally enjoy a spring get-together amongst friends to stone the enemy during his weakest hour, it is rather amusing to watch such a stoning party break loose in a glass house (title-holder: Rick Neuheisel).

Though Bruins fans understandably have found their own way to make peace with Slick Rick's sketchy past, at least to this outsider, this point pretty well makes the case argued above: The haughtiness, be it from Pat Forde or a Bruins fan or anyone else, rings a bit hollow when the OJ Mayo case is viewed as a single wave in the stormy sea of NCAA regulatory dysfunction.

I'm pretty sure there's more to this painting than that dot you're yelling about.

Those enjoying USC in crisis will have to forgive me for thinking the truly exceptional aspect of this case was the degree of arrogance and stupidity by which USC seems to have been operating.

As an example of the general dysfunction in the world of amateur athletes in big money sports, it appears to me a great deal closer to par for the course.

Not that we're likely to really talk about it.

Addendum: As bassale comments below: USC's screw up is "a pretty damn big dot," a point I don't disagree with. Two concluding follow-up notes, then:

First, the piece as a whole was an attempt to present the bigger context which remains (as yet) unspoken in the giddy-up to hang the Trojans.

And second, none of the above is to suggest USC shouldn't receive or won't deserve NCAA sanctions for this scandal.