Seven years after both USC’s basketball and football teams suffered crippling sanctions for players on both teams receiving improper benefits, the athletic program finds itself in the same situation — except under much more damning circumstances.
Tuesday’s news that four college basketball assistant coaches — including the Trojans’ associate men’s basketball coach Tony Bland — were arrested as part of an FBI sting on charges that include conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud rocked the college basketball world. But for USC, it was just another athletics scandal.
We all remember where we were when the football team was docked scholarships, given probation, a two-year bowl suspension and forced to forfeit the 2004 national championship over Reggie Bush and his family receiving gifts. It was among the harshest penalties handed down in NCAA history, and the fact that a prominent program like USC was on the receiving end sent shockwaves through college sports.
That same year, the basketball team self-imposed sanctions after O.J. Mayo also took cash and gifts while in school, forfeiting the entire 2007-2008 season, cutting down scholarships and forgoing postseason play for a year.
This time, though, it wasn’t just an outsider paying or gifting athletes as was the case back in 2010 — it was an assistant coach allegedly funneling money directly to current players and guiding them to certain agents. Not only are these egregious federal and NCAA violations, but they also put into question the morality of the basketball program as a whole — whether head coach Andy Enfield knew about Bland’s actions and which players on the active roster could have been bribed.
According to court documents made public on Tuesday, Bland took $13,000 in cash in exchange for promising a sports agent that he would direct certain players to hire him. He also allegedly facilitated $9,000 to the families of two USC players — an incoming freshman and a rising sophomore.
In contrast to its slow response to the scandal involving former Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito, the University took action almost immediately on Tuesday. Within hours of the news breaking, Athletic Director Lynn Swann released a statement pledging to cooperate fully with the investigation. Shortly thereafter, Vice President of Athletic Compliance Michael Blanton put out a statement that said Bland had been placed on administrative leave and that USC had hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to conduct an internal investigation.
USC deserves credit for its quick response to the controversy, for immediately placing Bland on leave and for hiring a person of Freeh’s stature to investigate itself. But the University must do more, including self-imposing sanctions as it did in 2010.
By hiring Freeh, USC is showing that it takes both the allegations and their consequences seriously. In addition to his post at the FBI, Freeh conducted Penn State’s internal investigation of the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2012 and released a scathing report claiming the school and its leaders demonstrated a “total disregard for the safety and welfare” of the children who Sandusky, a former assistant coach of the football team, abused. It was so harsh that he was sued by ex-president Graham Spanier, a lawsuit that was eventually dismissed.
Whether Freeh’s report was too critical or unfair is up for debate, but the University hiring him a mere couple of hours after the news broke indicates that USC is not simply looking for an easy way out, but rather is willing to put up with a potential Penn State-like report, one that would not at all paint the school in a positive light.
And when Swann spoke at a class on campus on Wednesday, he made clear that he is willing to be proactive.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire and I will act when I smell smoke,” Swann said. “I’m not interested in waiting until there’s a fire. Had we had any indication that something was wrong in any of our departments, we would have taken action sooner.”
All of this is good to hear, especially from a university that is no stranger to scandal, sports or otherwise. But the road is far from over, and USC has a ways to go before it is free of this controversy. First, Swann must decide Enfield’s future. In the past, programs could put all the blame on assistant coaches in the case that an assistant went rogue. But in 2013, an NCAA rule stipulated that head coaches may be suspended for violations committed by assistant coaches. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, whose school was also implicated in the scandal, already lost his job, and if Enfield is found to have had knowledge of Bland’s actions beforehand, he could, too, be in hot water.
Additionally, like in 2010, USC must also decide whether it wants to self-impose sanctions and hope the NCAA accepts them without piling on more. It did in 2010, but these circumstances are different, given how egregious Bland’s violations were. There’s no way of knowing how many penalties the program will have slap on itself in order to appease the NCAA, but it has to do more than what it imposed seven years ago. And entering a season in which the team is ranked top-15 in most preseason polls, Swann and Co. have to decide whether to compromise what could be the basketball program’s best season in decades and a potential shot at a national championship just to make the NCAA happy.
Then again, the NCAA could punish USC on its own, and retroactively strip the team of all its wins this upcoming season anyway. Like it has done thus far, the University should continue to be proactive, take responsibility for the scandal and self-impose punishments. It’s a hard call to make, but it’s the right one amidst yet another controversy to hit Heritage Hall.
Daily Trojan Fall 2017 Editorial Board