December 19, 2009
Since before he even set foot on USC's campus, Joe McKnight has faced the inevitable comparisons to his decorated predecessor in the Trojan backfield, Reggie Bush -- same hype, same build, same versatility, same show-stopping style. And just as McKnight is beginning to live up to the comparison on the field after his best season as a junior, the L.A. Times reports he's following Bush's footsteps off the field, too, in the form of an investigation into illegal prizes from an agent-type interloper:
Joe McKnight, star tailback of USC's football team, has been driving a sport utility vehicle owned by a Santa Monica businessman, an arrangement the school is investigating and which may be in violation of NCAA rules.
For several weeks, McKnight has been seen driving a well-kept 2006 Land Rover that, according to California Department of Motor Vehicles records, is registered to Scott Schenter.
Schenter, 47, has a background that includes marketing, and a company he owned had previously registered a website called 4joemcknight.com. It is unclear whether Schenter has any ties with USC or whether the school had knowledge of his activities.
Though he was reportedly spotted driving the SUV alone and with his girlfriend and son as passengers on consecutive days, McKnight told the Times he hadn't provided the athletic department with any of the standard documentation on the vehicle because he hadn't driven it, and only rode in it with his girlfriend, who he said works for Schenter. A USC rep later told the paper McKnight was "mistaken" in his remarks and had provided the usual information.
Any finding of a violation -- or even a strong hint of one through the course of the investigation, lest USC risk forfeiting a win by putting an ineligible player on the field -- could knock McKnight out of the Trojans' Emerald Bowl date against Boston College, and possibly force him to renege on his promise to return for what was shaping up as a breakout senior season. The immediate eligibility of its leading rusher, though, is the least of the school's issues here: With the NCAA's probe into major allegations against Bush and former basketball star O.J. Mayo still looming overhead, waiting to drop at any second, USC's reputation as ground zero for unscrupulous, wannabe agents buying a little early play is secure for the foreseeable future.
Actually, with Bush and Mayo, that rep was already secure; with the allegations against McKnight -- even if he comes away from the investigation clean -- the "U$C" tag is probably branded onto the outside of Heritage Hall for the remainder of Pete Carroll's tenure, and not just in the eyes of salivating haters from UCLA: To the extent its punishments still have any bite at all, the NCAA remains especially hostile to repeat offenders, and to situations that fall under the dreaded label, "Lack of Institutional Control." Three high-profile stars in two sports coming under investigation for allegedly accepting cash and prizes from would-be exploiters in a five-year window -- one of them after extreme heat had already been applied to the previous two -- frankly reeks of a lack of institutional control under any definition. Given the severity of the charges and the widespread evidence already made public in media investigations, if the NCAA's apparent foot-dragging doesn't turn out to be a careful prosecution building toward tangible penalties soon, the Association's own reputation for toothlessness will be an even bigger embarrassment.
[UPDATE, 7:05 p.m. ET] Schenter responded directly to the Times report via e-mail this afternoon, in which he describes himself as a passionate Washington Huskies fan, claims to have registered a number of Web sites in the names of prominent L.A. athletes and -- most importantly -- claims he only put his name on the papers for the Land Rover on behalf of McKnight's girlfriend, a "long time family friend" and employee: "I am the owner of the Land Rover because Michelle's parents couldn't qualify for the loan. It is her car. She makes the payments and she is responsible for insurance." More on USC's investigation, obviously, when the school eventually releases its findings.