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Oregon, Will Lyles, and the Slow Unraveling of a Scandal

UPDATE, July 1st:  Will Lyles Opens Up, Implicates Oregon Recruiting Scandal

Imagine if your humble site editor got audited by the IRS and as part of that audit they combed through all the expenses that I reported for Burnt Orange Nation. Imagine further that I took a $25,000 deduction for a payment I made to Stats Research, Inc., which I explained was a business expense related to providing me statistical data that I and my co-authors use to help us produce the site's content.

On its face, such an expense is clearly legitimate, but what if upon following through on the investigation the IRS agent looked carefully at the documentation and discovered that the data that I purchased contained stats related to Idaho and Rutgers football in 2007.

Do you suppose that would be the end of it? I imagine that would raise a slew of concerns for the investigator, and far from confirming the purchase as a legitimate business expense would raise questions as to what I was really doing with that money.

What Did Oregon Buy, Exactly?

That appears to be precisely the case at the University of Oregon following the release of a large number of documents related to the $25,000 that the university paid to Will Lyles, the review of which revealed that the Texas-based "consultant" provided information as relevant to Oregon's 2011 recruiting as would be random statistical data from other schools to Burnt Orange Nation:

[O]f 140 players profiled in [Lyle's] booklet, none were identifiable as members of the 2011 recruiting class. At least 115 were from the class that graduated from high school in 2009. Three were from 2010 and one was from 2008. Class year was not available for several players.

In other words, either Oregon is randomly throwing around money for things like useless data... or that payment was for delivery of a different product entirely. Occam says: something's amiss.

Especially given Mr. Lyle's reputation, it's hardly a leap to conclude that Oregon was paying for something very different. Where expending $25,000 for useless, outdated recruiting information looks like an inexplicable waste, for the delivery of a top prospect like Lache Seastrunk, the purchase price seems much better to fit.

Indeed, the only reason not to conclude that Oregon was purchasing a player -- rather than information about players -- is that the former is against the rules, while the latter is not.

Oregon's Increasingly Dangerous Problem

Were there no documents -- were the expense report related to some ephemeral "consulting" contract with no tangible work product -- it would be much easier to conclude that this potential scandal would just fizzle away. But today's revelations about the contents of the documents Oregon claims to have purchased feel like a turning point in this story. In fact, it feels a lot like when it was revealed that Jim Tressel not only knew about his players' misconduct, but covered it up and then lied about it.

To begin with, the timing couldn't be worse for Oregon, as journalists are pursuing scandals with vigor that had not meaningfully existed until recently. Jim Tressel was done in as much by the fine work done by the Columbus Dispatch as his transgressions themselves. With Tuesday's report, one gets the sense that the Oregonian is similarly devoted to getting to the bottom of this particular story, as well.

Second, and related, the Oregon-Lyles story has had multiple opportunities to fade away, but has not. The sustenance of the story illuminates the danger Oregon is facing:

(1) If Oregon's actions were completely clean, this story almost assuredly would have disappeared by now, and even if they were the spotlight is now markedly on the program, increasing the risk that other, untold violations may be uncovered.

(2) Similarly, if Oregon's actions amounted only to minor misconduct, it has still created further problems by not immediately being forthright -- at the very least inviting a rigorous examination of all its recruiting practices (and of the compliance of its entire football program, really).

(3) Finally, if Oregon has committed a major violation(s), with the continued shining of bright spotlights by an increasingly motivated media (to say nothing of the NCAA), the odds of its skeletons staying in the closet are not what they were in the very recent past.

All told, this is an increasingly dangerous situation for Oregon that even in the best case scenario presents difficult-to-control dangers due to its prior attempts to brush off its relationship with Lyles as non-problematic. It is still at least possible that the relationship was, in fact, purely appropriate, but at this point the story is erupting with choking plumes of smoke, such that even if Oregon's claim of innocence on this particular matter is ultimately vindicated, there is now assured to be an intensified search for fire, which could very well lead to discoveries of misconduct -- perhaps wholly unrelated -- that carry substantial consequences of their own.

Again, though, I maintain that if I were a fan of Oregon football, much more frightening than the potential collateral damage is the increasingly ominous shape that this particular controversy is taking. If Oregon's on the up-and-up in this instance, it's entirely possible -- and perhaps probable -- that the tangential digging would lead nowhere interesting, the media would soon lose interest, and everyone would move on as the excitement of the 2011 season took hold.

But what if Oregon's guilty? What if, like Jim Tressel at Ohio State, they were guilty of misconduct with Will Lyles? What if the misconduct was relatively mild -- perhaps an inappropriate purchase of crap product from someone simply because he's friendly to the program, such charitable purchase not meant in any way to create an understanding that recruits were to be delivered? However partially defensible in an extremely limited, extremely questionable capacity, such a practice is at best unseemly, an obvious compliance problem, and an utterly reckless practice that invites huge trouble.

And if the misconduct was worse than that? If Oregon was buying a sham product with an implicit understanding that Lyles would say nice things to recruits about the Ducks? Slopping a bit of lipstick on the pig wouldn't change the fact that such conduct would be a clear, major, blatant recruiting violation. And if it were even worse than that, which it might well have been? If Oregon was simply funneling money to Lyles in an explicit, knowing, arranged agreement to trade cash for letters of intent? That's as flagrant and reprehensible a violation as it gets -- an embrace of the perverse ethics of the worst of the worst in the SEC. It's lawlessness no different than Barry Switzer's Oklahoma.

Once The Sweatervest Begins To Unravel...

I'm cynical enough to believe that with Nike's interest/investment in Oregon athletics the severity of the consequences it might face -- even in the worst of circumstances -- may somewhat be limited. But if I were a fan of the Ducks the two things that would worry me most right now are the way and the timing/atmosphere in which this story is unfolding. Although Oregon's response to this issue would have been entirely prudent and practical even two short years ago, today not only is that response not being taken at face value, but the insufficient explanation is as potentially explosive as the underlying issue itself.

Whether this is the beginning of a paradigm shift in compliance or a relatively short-lived uptick in vigilant regulation, the timing could not be worse for Oregon. And what would worry me most as a Ducks fan would be the steady drip of damning information, which at this point in time will increasingly amplify the scrutiny its program will face, consequently increasing the chances it will get busted for bad, penalty-producing behavior -- for this particular, as well as unrelated, misconduct.

But most troubling of all, Oregon's response is on the record. The most difficult aspect of regulating pay-for-play cheating is the challenge in finding proof. It's one thing to be accused of shady dealings with Will Lyles, and another to be in a position to be proved guilty of such malfeasance. A legal inquiry could get there with discovery and subpoenas, but the NCAA has nothing even remotely approximating such investigative powers.

And that's why today's news feels momentous. Because Oregon is on the record. They claimed to have paid for a legitimate product and we now know -- definitively -- that this product was literally worthless. Which means that they lied. We may not (yet) know -- definitively -- what, precisely, they were hiding, but we know that the explanation they offered was inadequate.

Sound familiar? Time will tell, but if I were a supporter of Oregon football, I'd be awfully concerned by today's news. It's starting to look like another slow unraveling of a scandal.

As Jim Tressel found out the hard way, once you lie, it's hard to stop the unraveling...