Why the OSU case is worse than that of USC

Among the latest avalanche of allegations surrounding the Ohio State football program here’s the one that could be the kill shot, the one that, if true, should cause the NCAA to level sanctions against the Buckeyes far in excess of even the carpet bombing it delivered to USC last year.

The website SportsByBrooks reported that the NCAA enforcement staff has discovered “dozens of payments [quarterback Terrelle] Pryor received in past years from a Columbus sports memorabilia dealer. … the NCAA violations were discovered when the name of the local memorabilia dealer, Dennis Talbott, was seen on checks Pryor was depositing in his personal bank account.”

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith declared in December that there was not a systemic problem inside his program. That is looking less and less likely.
(Terry Gilliam/AP photo)

Checks? Seriously, checks? In the long, illustrious history of NCAA violations, the existence of a paper trail of deposited checks is almost unprecedented. Bags of cash? Absolutely. Tricked-out car registered in grandma’s name? Standard operating procedure. Downtown condos where the rent is never due? Of course.

Checks? Oh, my.

If this is true then it’s the big one for Ohio State because there is nothing the NCAA likes more than the irrefutable evidence that documents provide. It’s why so many cases involve seemingly minor violations such as excessive phone calls. Cell bills don’t lie.

The checks would be more than just proof that Pryor, who left the program on Tuesday, was accepting compensation for signing memorabilia, which is a violation of NCAA rules.

It could be the smoking gun that proves Ohio State’s 11-day investigation last December into Pryor and his teammates profiting off memorabilia sales was nothing but a shallow show designed to sweep the scandal under the rug and get the players back on the field for the upcoming Sugar Bowl.

It’s the proof that the school, and its highest leaders, not only failed to monitor the behavior of its star athletes, but even when tipped off by federal authorities of a major scandal, failed to find out what was actually going on.

While it may be Gestapo-esque, Ohio State always had the ability to access Pryor’s bank records. That’s one of many rights student-athletes are forced to give up in exchange for a scholarship and it’s how the NCAA could get them during its current investigation into the program.

“At the beginning of each school year student athletes sign a statement that gives consent for that information to the school,” said NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn, who would only confirm there is an ongoing investigation at OSU.

(For the record, let’s reiterate our disagreement with this, among other NCAA policies, which are mostly designed to maintain some veneer of amateurism so schools can profit from not paying either players or taxes. However, these are the rules the schools themselves created and should be on the hook to obey.)

If there are deposited checks from a memorabilia dealer in Pryor’s account, then the school should have found them in December. There is simply no excuse for not uncovering them. This isn’t a hundred-dollar handshake in a back alley somewhere. It’s all there in black and white. All they had to do was look at the statements.

Instead, 11 days later, a time frame that included repeated lobbying to the NCAA reinstatement committee in an effort to maintain a full roster for the Sugar Bowl, the school concluded its investigation with no such discovery.

“There are no other NCAA violations around this case,” athletic director Gene Smith implausibly declared. “We’re very fortunate we do not have a systemic problem in our program. This is isolated to these young men, isolated to this particular incident. There are no other violations that exist.”

In fact, there were many other violations. Sports Illustrated has since found nine other players tied to the tattoo parlor. The Columbus Dispatch has since raised questions of why more than 50 players and family members purchased automobiles from the same local used car lots.

And now there is word that sitting in Pryor’s bank records all along were checks from a memorabilia dealer and part-time photographer that SportsByBrooks claims was banned from attending games by OSU in the middle of the 2010 season.

Throughout this case it’s been the cover-up, not the crime, that’s ruined everything. What could’ve been brief suspensions for a few players has, courtesy of mismanagement, snowballed into a scandal that could level the program.

First coach Jim Tressel resigned last month because he failed to alert his bosses of the memorabilia deals back in April of 2010.

Now here comes an even bigger problem.

USC was drilled with a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships for not keeping tabs on star player Reggie Bush and his dealings with two separate sports marketing agencies. A key part of the case came down to the NCAA claiming that the school (through one assistant coach) either did know or should have known about the relationships. It also leaned on a concept that claimed “high-profile players demand high-profile compliance.”

The initial news of Bush receiving impermissible benefits didn’t come out until three months after the Heisman winner had left school and turned pro.

The word on Pryor came while he was still a student-athlete. It was followed by the push to keep him eligible for the Sugar Bowl.

If USC was guilty of not acting on allegations that weren’t made until after a player’s career was over, then Ohio State faces the more significant problem of not fully acting on allegations made while a player’s career was still active. Plus there are more players than just Pryor involved.

This is on Gene Smith. And it’s on school president E. Gordon Gee and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, both of whom rubber stamped the investigation that even those uninitiated in NCAA procedure knew was ridiculous. Gee and Delany have no excuse for playing along with such a whitewash.

If Ohio State and the Big Ten were really committed to following NCAA rules, Smith, Gee and Delany would’ve given up on the reinstatement process, conceded a likely loss to the hated SEC in the Sugar Bowl and dug in for a true exhaustive look at the situation. At the very least it would have taken a look at Pryor’s bank account.

When it comes to the NCAA, the issue isn’t usually the initial violation (those happen everywhere). It’s how the school responds.

For Ohio State, it was another form of the cover-up Tressel started nine months prior. This is college sports’ highest-paid AD (Smith), highest-paid president (Gee) and arguably most-powerful person (Delany), millionaires one and all, making a mockery of the very NCAA statutes and procedures they create, enforce and claim to hold dear.

In one purposefully weak internal investigation, they managed to put the proud Ohio State football program directly in the NCAA crosshairs, debased decades of honor from former players, coaches and fans and all but begged for sanctions even more crippling than the Trojans received.

Hope that win over Arkansas was worth it, guys.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jun 8, 2011