Now that HBO and ESPN have done their part to expand the ranks even further, it might be time for a brief accounting of the programs that — as far as we know — are currently facing an NCAA inquiry stemming from players receiving improper benefits from third parties, or that have good reason to expect one in the immediate future:
• Auburn: Athletic director Jay Jacobs said Wednesday the university has contacted the SEC and the NCAA over allegations by four former players on HBO's "Real Sports" with Bryant Gumbel that they accepted cash from boosters before and after arriving at Auburn, from 2002-07. This is on top of the ongoing/unresolved probe into a legion of allegations into the recruitment of Cam Newton out of junior college in 2009-10. And the ongoing/unresolved probe into the recruitment of a pair of high school teammates in Louisiana.
• LSU: Van Malone, a former cornerbacks coach at Texas A&M, told ESPN on camera that Texas-based "trainer"/street agent Willie Lyles once shopped prized recruit Patrick Peterson to A&M for $80,000 in 2007. ("He said that was something we were going to have to beat as a university to be able to obtain the services of this kid.") LSU wasn't specifically implicated in the ESPN report but has already come under NCAA scrutiny for a $6,000 payment to Lyles' scouting service, and just last week responded to the NCAA's allegations that a former player (short-lived JUCO signee Akiem Hicks) received improper transportation and lodging on campus in 2009, facilitated by a former assistant coach.
• Mississippi State: The investigation into Newton's recruitment is likely centered in Starkville, where Bulldog boosters and coaches allegedly fielded most of the solicitations from Cecil Newton and his minion, Kenny Rogers.
• North Carolina: The jury is still out on the various agent-related scandals that sidelined more than a dozen Tar Heels for all or part of last season and implicated an assistant coach, John Blake, who allegedly used his access to steer players to his friend and sometime benefactor, late NFL agent Gary Wichard. There's also that pesky academic misconduct scandal lurking in the background.
• Ohio State: Coach Jim Tressel has already admitted to keeping quiet throughout 2010 about an email tip that multiple players (including his starting quarterback) had sold memorabilia for cash and free tattoos in 2009, and to sitting on that information for another month after the university and NCAA were alerted last December. Now the Buckeyes are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
• Oklahoma State: A pair of lawsuits filed in Texas this week have forced OSU to initiate its own investigation into claims that former receiver Dez Bryant borrowed more than $600,000 in jewelry, sports tickets and cash against future pro earnings in the summer of 2009, before his junior season. Of course, Bryant barely had a junior season because of a season-long suspension for lying to the NCAA about his contact with Deion Sanders, a few months before signing with Sanders' agent, Eugene Parker.
• Texas A&M: See above re: Willie Lyles.
• USC: It was the hammer the NCAA dropped on the Trojans last summer in response to the epic collegiate largesse of Reggie Bush that signaled the NCAA's arousal from hibernation on major rules violations, and SC continues to toil under the specter of scholarship reductions and another bowl-less season while it waits (and waits, and waits) for a verdict on its recent appeal.
All of those cases have arisen or intensified in the last year, a year which also produced improper benefits cases and subsequent verdicts at Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina — and that's in the ostensibly less corrupt of the two high-profile sports under the NCAA's purview. Altogether, five of the 17 major infractions cases heard by the NCAA last year involved impermissible booster activities, as did 73 secondary violations reported by Division I schools last year. This is what happens when you attempt to erect a wall between supply and demand: The wall turns out to be more like a flimsy barbed-wire fence.
That's the reality for the most well-trained, well-staffed, well-funded institutions of law enforcement in the world. The NCAA is not one of these institutions. It does not have a squadron of investigators. It does not have subpoena power. It can't tap phone lines or obtain search warrants. In fact, the swiss-cheese barrier between the people willing to pay to satisfy the demand for first-class athletes and the athletes themselves wouldn't exist at all if it wasn't persistently manned by the media, or didn't occasionally intersect with real law enforcement. The virtues of "amateurism" are debatable enough as a hypothetical ideal; as a practical matter in the age of replica jerseys, luxury boxes and billion-dollar television deals, they're absurd, as the never-ending tide of headlines and shocking exposés continues to make abundantly clear.
It's clear to NCAA president Mark Emmert, too. Which is why his new pledge to lead a serious discussion about increasing the athletes' cut of the pie at next month's NCAA meetings is less the cry of a crusader than the last gasp of a man throwing his hands up in futility:
…as the NCAA basketball tournament's Final Four gathers [in Houston] this week — capping a three-week showcase that generates more than $771 million a year in television rights alone — Emmert acknowledges it's time for a serious discussion about whether and how to spread a little more of the largesse to those doing the playing and sweating.
"The sooner, the better," Emmert says.
He's not thinking big. Maybe bump up the value of players' scholarships by a few thousand dollars to take care of travel, laundry and other typical college expenses that aren't covered now. And Emmert isn't promising anything, only that he'll bring it up at the NCAA's board meetings in April.
"I will make clear," he says, "that I want this to be a subject we explore."
Which, given the overwhelming opposition to the notion in the past, is just about all the guy can really do as the head of an asylum largely run by the inmates. It's something, even if only symbolically — a realization that the haphazard "exploration" of actual offenses in the real world is like chasing a shadow through a forest. Either enforcement has to tighten or the rules have to relax — or, preferably, both — but the system as it stands is at the end of its rope.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.