What Would You Do????

By Jeff Schultz
Updated: May 15, 2008

ATLANTA — Imagine that you have a gift, but you are surrounded by ruin. Bad neighborhood. Little money. A single mom who works three jobs and does the best she can in the 30 minutes a day she sees you.

Then one day somebody in a nice suit, let’s say with a hint of brimstone, shakes your hand and leaves you with a roll of bills. He slips you an ATM card, a phone, a watch. A plasma TV lands on your doorstep.

It’s all against the rules. But you figure this part of your life is only a brief stopover.

Nobody cares. Everybody does it. Nobody gets hurt. Check that — you don’t get hurt. And really, does anybody else matter? It’s happening again.

Strong allegations have been leveled against a young college athlete, this time former USC basketball star O.J. Mayo. They involve the usual schemes and payoffs and circle of leeches.

If any of what has been charged is true, USC, which already is under investigation for similar allegations involving former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, almost certainly will go on probation. But blame is being spread everywhere. Agents. Advisers. Shoe companies. AAU basketball. The NCAA. The NBA. The lame one-and-done rule that doesn’t fix anything as much as it further exposes a gifted, hungry teenager to the underbelly of “amateur” athletics.

Everybody at some point will take a hit. Everybody except O.J. Mayo.

If Mayo is found to have taken some $30,000, as was outlined in an ESPN report, the NCAA won’t be able to touch him. He’ll be in the NBA by the time the investigation concludes. The NBA certainly couldn’t do anything. No league rule would have been broken.

Mayo falls into that gray zone, like Bush, like so many others. Chris Webber initially lied about taking money from booster Ed Martin at Michigan. The school eventually was forced to vacate victories, went on four years probation and took down banners from two Final Fours. Michigan also was told to disassociate itself from Webber and three former teammates for 10 years.

This isn’t to suggest that the student-athlete should be the prime target for punishment. All parties should share blame. But only one party can operate without any threat of ramifications. Schools get probation. Agents can lose accreditation or even face criminal charges. Coaches can lose jobs. Sanctions can follow them from school to school (as was the case with Kelvin Sampson).

But the kid? He only gets rich.

He is not breaking any law. But he is pulling out the bottom brick, causing an entire structure to collapse. Something is wrong with that.

The NCAA said it is concerned but is essentially powerless.

There might be a way to solve this. Scholarships essentially are one-year grants, renewable if an athlete is in good academic standing. It sounds an awful lot like a contract. Contracts can have clauses. Clauses like: “If you take money and we find out and then land on probation, we can come after you for damages.

But for the NCAA to take the step of signing student-athletes to contracts would mean acknowledging that they are employees. That would mean they couldn’t maintain this farcical notion of amateur athletics — TV contracts, jersey sales and all evidence to the contrary.

Georgia Tech athletics director Dan Radakovich acknowledged a problem exists but isn’t sure what can be done, short of a school filing a civil suit in an effort to claim damages.

“The people at West Virginia are basically saying they were damaged by the fact Rich Rodriguez left,” Radakovich said. “But if they went to court, it would be difficult for West Virginia to prove damages in the short run. They’re still playing games. They’re still selling tickets. How do you prove you’re damaged by $4 million?

“If an athlete does something in the NBA, they can fine him, suspend him, terminate his contract. About the only thing a college can do is throw him out. But if a student-athlete is leaving anyway, that’s not going to do much good.”

USC figures to pay a price. But Bush already is swimming in riches in New Orleans. Mayo will be a lottery pick. Their fingerprints could be everywhere, but it wouldn’t matter. When the NCAA holds a news conference, they can watch it on a plasma.