Grinding Gears: McNair trial reveals the NCAA’s downfalls

Eric He | Daily Trojan

As the FBI probe into college basketball drags on, we find ourselves victimized by news fatigue. With each passing week, there seems to be another school involved, another coach or agent accused of passing on illicit benefits to players. Eventually, this might become pointless, because the notion that a majority of schools are in violation of NCAA rules is not too far-fetched, and it would be impossible to sanction every single school.

Keep that in mind as you follow the developments of the Todd McNair trial that began on Wednesday. McNair, a former USC running backs coach who became a central figure in the sanctions leveled against the University after the Reggie Bush investigation, is accusing the NCAA of defamation in a lawsuit that was filed back in 2011.

Here’s the SparkNotes-esque summary: The NCAA claimed McNair was aware that Bush received illegal benefits that resulted in USC vacating its 2004 national championship and Bush forfeiting his Heisman Trophy. It also alleged that McNair provided misleading information about the case, and slapped him with a show-cause penalty, endangering his employment. USC did not renew his contract when it expired, and he has not coached since.

So McNair filed a lawsuit, which has taken seven years to reach trial. Several attempts by the NCAA to have the case thrown out  have been dismissed, and eight separate judges have been assigned to the case.

In that time, the football program has gone through a rebuild, cycling through two infamous head coaching dismissals and finally settling on Clay Helton, who has restored stability and respectability to the team. Two seasons ago, USC won the Rose Bowl. Last year, it won the Pac-12 title. And it could very well produce the top pick in this year’s NFL Draft in Sam Darnold. The state of the program in 2018 is far from what it was in 2011.

But still, this last fragment from the sanctions that have become known as college football’s “death penalty” remains, and the ramifications have surely been felt. Aside from the tangible effects — championship and scholarships stripped, a postseason ban, etc. — USC has become much more stringent on athletes who may have committed a violation. Last year, when family friends of former men’s basketball player De’Anthony Melton were alleged to have received benefits through a would-be sports agent, Melton was held out of the entire season, much to the chagrin of his teammates and head coach Andy Enfield, who made repeated comments to the media lamenting Melton’s status.

While O.J. Simpson’s jersey still sits on the Coliseum peristyle, prominently displayed during home games, Bush’s jersey is no more. Bush’s Heisman trophy is gone. His name has been wiped off all records, like he never existed. In press releases and game notes, USC is extremely careful to note wins, stats or records that have been vacated because of the sanctions. A season’s worth of games never happened.

The verdict of McNair’s lawsuit will have no legal bearing on USC. But it will, at the very least, harken back to the dark days when the NCAA poured gasoline all over USC and then lit a match — all because one man received improper gifts.

Which brings us to the present and this FBI probe that seemed so eye-popping upon first glance, but is looking more and more like a waste of time and resources. Bush’s violation is no different from the types of infractions that the FBI is currently looking into. But right now, it has literally tens of programs in its grasp. Will the NCAA issue the death penalty to every single one of these schools?

That’s doubtful. While it is noble of the FBI to help the NCAA enforce its rules, the bureau surely has more important things to do than use wiretaps and undercover officers to determine which athletes had the audacity to seek compensation for their own talents and violate the NCAA’s holy model of “amateurism.” And the NCAA should have known, even a decade ago, that this model is outdated.

Of course, it doesn’t. That’s why we’re here today. It’s why Bush’s college football career, one of the most illustrious ever, was wiped off the books; why McNair’s coaching career was ruined; why USC is terrified of this all happening again. Think of the money, the time, the resources, the manpower spent over the past seven years just for McNair’s case to begin on Wednesday, just so we can determine what he knew about a teenager accepting gifts.

Forget about amateurism. The silliness of all this — that is the real shame.

Eric He is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Thursdays.