Southern California's Rivals site, USCFootball.com, has managed to get its hands on one of the smoking guns in the NCAA's case against the Trojans: The photo of USC running backs coach Todd McNair (left) in some incriminating company back in October 2005. But what you see probably depends on what you want to see:
Kind of anticlimactic, I know. But that snapshot is one of the key pieces in the 67-page NCAA report detailing myriad rules violations at USC in 2004-05, which hinges in part on a two-fold accusation against McNair. The NCAA alleged that a) McNair learned about running back Reggie Bush's arrangement to receive improper benefits from would-be agents at a San Diego birthday party for ex-NFL star Marshall Faulk in the spring of 2005, but failed to report anything to USC officials; and b) Actually spoke to one of Bush's money men, Lloyd Lake, during a 2 1/2 minute phone call in the wee hours of Jan. 8, 2006, when Lake allegedly attempted to get McNair to convince Bush to either adhere to his agreement with Lake and partner Michael Michaels or begin reimbursing the pair for their trouble.
The NCAA's real crosshairs may have been aimed elsewhere in the program, but it was McNair's alleged involvement that allowed investigators to claim "institutional knowledge" and slap the Trojans with the harshest sanctions levied against anyone in the last 25 years.
That argument rests largely on three elements: The testimony of Lloyd Lake, corroborating phone records and the above picture, taken at an L.A. club on Oct. 29, 2005, which was cited as proof that McNair (far left) was on friendly terms with Lake (far right) and Michaels (in sunglasses) at the height of the scandal. Once it had settled on that conclusion, the NCAA was also able to accuse McNair of lying to investigators when he claimed he didn't know anything.
USC's formal appeal to reduce the sanctions also hinges on the photo – specifically, in proving that it proves nothing. The university's official response to the NCAA's findings went to great pains to prove the picture was a coincidence, casually snapped when McNair showed up at the club looking for Bush and ran into a mutual friend of his and Lake's (actor Faizon Love, center). People stop for these kinds of quick poses with celebrities all the time without asking if the other people standing around are guilty of ethical violations. Just look at the vice-president:
A recent event establishes why these assumptions [about McNair's alleged connection to Lake] are utter nonsense. Here is a photograph that made national news:
The photograph depicts a couple arm-in-arm with Vice-President Joe Biden at a State Dinner at the White House. The trio look to be the best of friends and, certainly, we are led to assume that the well-dressed couple are important dignitaries. In fact, the Vice- President does not know these people, nor were they invited to the State Dinner. As the whole world now knows, the publicity-hungry duo bypassed the Secret Service and crashed the event. This is a graphic example of two facts: (1) people elbow their way into events and manage to get themselves photographed with celebrities, and (2) a picture tells us nothing about the relationships of the people depicted.
The university would also like to note that Lloyd Lake is a convicted felon and probably a liar. McNair filed an official response to the NCAA along the same lines in January, arguing that "In appearance and demeanor, Lake resembles someone who would be expected to associate with [redacted; presumably Bush] while he was enrolled at USC. Anyone who saw the two young men together would not think they did not belong together or that something was amiss."
But all of those objections were entered into the record well before the NCAA released its official account, which unequivocally sides with Lake. It's up to the university's appeal to change the association's mind at some point over the next nine to 12 months, when the investigators most closely associated with the case have probably seen McNair as a black sheep for most of the last four years. In such a blatantly eye-of-the-beholder, what's going to change their mind?
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.