If the NCAA finds that Reggie Bush accepted improper benefits from a prospective sports agent, that doesn’t necessarily mean that USC will face sanctions.
The determining factor will be how much school officials knew about such contact and when they knew it.
Under policy amended in 2001, the NCAA eased the burden on schools whose athletes are targeted by unscrupulous sports agents, according to Steve Morgan, a former NCAA enforcement chief.
"It's extremely difficult for an institution to police that,'' said Morgan, who oversaw the NCAA's enforcement division from 1985 to 1996 and now works for a law firm in Kansas that represents schools in NCAA matters. "So sometimes a benefit can be conferred by an agent, but there never would really be any institutional responsibility about that.''
Yet schools must take appropriate action if they become aware of an apparent rule violation involving an athlete accepting improper benefits, Morgan said.
NCAA officials have declined to comment on the Bush case, citing their policy of not discussing ongoing investigations. But according to Morgan, NCAA investigators looking into such a matter will scrutinize how a school responded when it learned about possible rule violations.
"In any assessment of facts there's a reasonability test on what you know and when you know it that has to weigh into the equation,'' he said. "I think that's where we'd be.''
With Trojans coach Pete Carroll leaving practices accessible to the public, the evidence suggests the doors were open to agents at USC during the time Bush and his family allegedly accepted improper benefits.
They also milled about Heritage Hall, USC's athletic offices, according to a Los Angeles Times story that documented the rampant presence of agents at USC during the 2005 season.
In January, according to the Times, USC offensive line coach Pat Ruel surveyed the lobby outside the football offices and saw more than a dozen unfamiliar faces.
"I know what cockroaches look like,'' Ruel told The Times. "And I know what agents look like.''
USC was infested.
Furthermore, sources told Yahoo! Sports that representatives of a fledging marketing firm from which Bush and his family allegedly received improper benefits were allowed in the USC locker room during the 2005 season. Sources also said USC running backs coach Todd McNair knew of Bush's involvement with the marketing firm before last season's national championship game against Texas.
This April, Carroll took apparent steps to regain control of the situation. According to The Times' story, Carroll sternly warned agents not to contact any high school prospects who attended the school's pro day – where USC's NFL prospects worked out for scouts.
In another apparent effort to head off rule violations, USC players and their parents were required this fall to provide more detailed information about where they reside.
The actions USC took in response to alleged infractions could prove pivotal if the case goes before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, according to Morgan.
"You'd try to figure out whether the response was reasonable and ran toward the effort to reasonably address any potential rules issues when the action was taken,'' he said.
If a coach or school staff member learns of a potential violation, they must proceed in three stages, Morgan said.
First, they must assess the credibility of the allegations, and if they think a violation may have occurred, they then turn the matter over to the school's compliance department. Second, the school's compliance officers must conduct a similar assessment, and if they think a violation may have occurred, then they must begin an investigation. Third, if the investigation reveals a rule infraction may have taken place, the school must inform the NCAA.
"If you know as an institution that something happened,'' Morgan said, "you have an obligation to report it.''
At one time, if the NCAA ruled that a student-athlete knowingly accepted money or anything of value from a prospective agent, schools suffered sanctions.
Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example, were forced to return money from the 1996 NCAA basketball tournament and forfeit games even though the NCAA acknowledged neither school knew its players had accepted extra benefits from sports agents.
"There was a strict responsibility,'' Morgan said.
The rules were amended five years later, giving the NCAA Committee on Infractions the discretion to determine whether penalties against the school are warranted.
Morgan said the mandatory sanctions were considered too harsh in cases where schools were unaware of infractions and made an effort to educate student-athletes about eligibility issues related to sports agents. An NCAA spokesperson said she was unsure what led to the rules amendment but cited the intent found in the NCAA manual: "To specify that the Committee on Infractions may take actions to vacate performances in cases where a student-athlete has participated while ineligible in an NCAA championship.''
In 2001, when the NCAA enacted that rule change, instances of sports agents giving athletes money and other benefits that violate NCAA eligibility rules appeared to be on the rise. Bill Saum, who oversees agent and gambling issues for the NCAA, acknowledged in 2002 that agent-related problems were widespread in college athletics.
"We're not naive to the problem," Saum told The Fresno Bee. "We've been quoted for many years that our first-round draft picks probably have either been offered or accepted inducements [in their playing days]."
Attempts to reach Saum for comment were unsuccessful, but in past interviews he has said the NCAA devotes three full-time and three-part time employees to agent-related activities. The issue also has drawn attention from the federal government.
In 2004, President Bush signed into law a bill targeting unscrupulous sports agents. The bill was designed to protect student-athletes from predatory agents who make false or misleading claims to lure student-athletes into turning pro, said a spokesperson for Tennessee congressman Bart Gordon, who along with Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska football coach and current U.S. congressman, pushed for the legislation.
This law allows universities and state attorney generals to take legal action against an agent if the agent has violated the provisions of the law. But that law can't protect USC from possible repercussions.
In addition to facing possible NCAA sanctions, the Trojans might suffer penalties from the Pac-10 and also Bowl Championship Series, which governs the national championship game.
Depending on the outcome of an NCAA investigation, a BCS official said, USC could be stripped of its 2004 national title. Whether the school would be forced to give back money it received for playing in the championship game remains open for discussion.
- Reggie Bush