|Kelly's program appears headed for probation, but likely won't face the harshest penalties. (Getty Images)|
The NCAA is screwing up the Oregon case. That much we know. What we don't know is the extent of the damage, the hypocrisy, the outright cowardice that the NCAA will show before all is said and done.
What we know is this: The Oregon football team paid some guy in Houston $25,000 for scouting materials that didn't exist. What did exist? A number of high school football players who were mentored by that same guy in Houston, highly regarded recruits who ignored all those football schools in Texas to play way the heck up there in Oregon. Why would they do that? That's not for me to say, but those are the dots. Feel free to connect them.
I know I am.
The NCAA isn't interested in connecting the dots. Or if it is, the NCAA doesn't care what picture those dots might draw. Because this much we also know: The NCAA is prepared to find Oregon guilty of "failure to monitor" its football program, which sounds bad -- and isn't good -- but could have been so much worse.
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According to documents released last week by Oregon, the NCAA has decided not to administer a "lack of institutional control" finding, which would have opened the Ducks to more severe sanctions. As it is, Oregon appears headed for probation and a loss of scholarships, but it could have been worse. And it should have been worse, because what happened at Oregon doesn't look like a misunderstanding or an honest mistake. What happened at Oregon looks like blatant cheating.
Don't take my word for it. Take the word of that guy from Houston, Will Lyles, who pocketed $25,000 for his "scouting service" shortly after one of his minions, running back Lache Seastrunk, signed with Oregon. Since then Lyles has said the Ducks weren't paying him for information: "They paid for what they saw as my access and influence with recruits."
Cheating, in other words.
Lyles also said Oregon didn't get a single scouting report for that $25,000 -- although Oregon did get All-American prep running back Lache Seastrunk -- until nearly a year later, when coach Chip Kelly "scrambled," in Lyles words, to get something, anything, from Lyles because reporters were starting to investigate.
"They said they just needed anything," Lyles told Yahoo, and that's what Oregon got: anything Lyles could get his hands on. Oregon paid $25,000 for Lyles' 2011 scouting service, but what Oregon received was information on 2009 recruits -- some who were already in college, one who was dead. Because that's what Lyles could get his hands on.
So at this point, if Lyles is to be believed, there are only two options for the NCAA to believe: Chip Kelly is that stupid. Or Chip Kelly is that unethical.
And Chip Kelly doesn't strike me as stupid.
But the NCAA is willing to pretend he is, because it says Oregon had a "failure to monitor," which means stuff slipped through the cracks, instead of a lack of institutional control. That decision has been greeted with relief in Oregon, where the Oregonian polled readers to predict the coming sanctions. Nearly 75 percent foresee a loss of scholarships, nothing more. Only 9 percent envision the kind of crippling sanctions the NCAA gave Southern California after the Reggie Bush scandal.
And if you ask me, the USC sanctions should be the starting point for Oregon. The minimum. While it's true that an actual player (and family members) received benefits in the USC case -- and received them at a value well beyond $25,000 -- there's a distinction here. It's a distinction Oregon fans will ignore because it's convenient, but it's a distinction that should appall the NCAA:
At USC, the checks were written by outsiders: agents, runners, marketing reps.
At Oregon, the check was written by the Oregon football team.
See that distinction? It's grotesque. This wasn't some mysterious off-campus figure exerting influence. This was Chip Kelly making sure $25,000 went to the guy in Houston who says he helped steer recruits to Oregon. And Lyles had a hands-on role, too: He says he advised eventual Oregon All-American tailback LaMichael James to transfer to Arkansas for his final semester of high school to avoid Texas' standardized test required for graduation. Then he showed Seastrunk how to use his grandmother to sign his scholarship papers, because Seastrunk's mother wasn't sold on Oregon.
See how bad this looks?
Not to the NCAA, though. Not as of last week, anyway -- which is why I'm writing this now. Before it's too late. The NCAA has communicated with Oregon about the case, given hints of what's to come, but it hasn't filed anything official. Oregon still is waiting for the Notice of Allegations, which means there's time for the NCAA to get this right.
Assuming the NCAA wants to get this right.
Based on the documents released last week, the NCAA doesn't. The NCAA has tipped its hand, and it's an inexplicably weak hand. The NCAA is sitting across from Oregon with a full house -- $25,000 for the fictional scouting services of a guy whose best players chose Oregon, for god's sake -- but its posture suggests a pair of threes.
It makes no sense to me, unless this has something to do with Nike. Why would Nike matter here? It shouldn't, and I hope it doesn't. But I can't ignore the fact that Nike has multimillion-dollar deals with scores of Division I schools, making it one of the NCAA's biggest revenue streams. Or the fact that Nike president Phil Knight is an Oregon graduate who donated $100 million to Oregon in 2007.
Or the likelihood that, if the NCAA hammers Phil Knight's baby, Phil Knight wouldn't be happy.
What would an unhappy Phil Knight mean to scores of NCAA athletic departments relying on his money to stay solvent? I don't know, and I hope it doesn't matter to the NCAA. But you have to wonder about the whole thing. How could you not?
Boise State was hit with a lack of institutional control in September for seemingly unintentional violations -- incoming freshmen bunking with upperclassmen during summer workouts -- that ensnared 63 players. Total monetary value: $78 per player.
Oregon apparently will avoid the "lack of institutional control" label for a seemingly intentional violation committed by the head coach himself. Total monetary value: $25,000.
This is the same NCAA that looked the other way when Auburn quarterback Cam Newton's father was caught with his hand out, but at least that one makes some sense. The NCAA justified looking the other way because the extended hand remained empty; Newton's father asked Mississippi State for money, yes, but he didn't get it. According to the monstrous NCAA rulebook at the time, no money equaled no violation.
But Will Lyles didn't just ask for money from Oregon -- he got it.
The rulebook is pretty clear about that one, NCAA. So throw it at Oregon.