Who’s To Blame??

By Carl Steward
Updated: May 13, 2008

CALIFORNIA — WOW, AN agent payola scandal involving USC and O.J. Mayo. How shocking. Simply unbelievable. Goodness, how could something like this possibly happen?

You chortle. Me, too. After all, only folks named Gomer or Goober wouldn’t have anticipated a development like Mayo’s breaking sooner than later in college basketball. Perhaps the only shocking and unbelievable part is that Mayo is the only high-profile player under intense scrutiny so far.

Exquisitely talented pre-adult basketball players are being mercilessly exploited at every turn these days — by agents, by universities, by a pro league that says they can’t play professionally until it says so even if most of these players have no interest in attending college.

Thanks largely to the NBA’s 19-year-old draft-eligibility rule instituted two years ago, a flood of hoops prodigies have been forced into the one-and-done college charade, where they cultivate their court credentials on the campus farm for a year until they become eligible for their big pro payday.

Mayo, Memphis’ Derrick Rose, Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, UCLA’s Kevin Love and Indiana’s Eric Gordon comprise a rather startling five-man freshman all-star team bolting the NCAAs for the NBA.

But in case you think this year is a fluke rather than a trend, consider that last year’s One-and-Done All-Stars werepretty striking, too: Ohio State’s Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Texas’ Kevin Durant, Washington’s Spencer Hawes, and a guy the Warriors wound up getting, North Carolina’s Brandan Wright. Revolting as it may be, it’s become an accepted part of the get-rich rigmarole for these players.

With that in mind, it should come as no revelation that many of these young men are ripe to be busted during their “college year” for prior and present relationships with aggressive, unscrupulous agents who sometimes start swarming around these talented teenagers while they’re still in middle school.

They slip them gifts and cash, and who knows what else to get that inside edge in order to win a representation deal once they’re ready to hit the NBA jackpot.

This appears to be what happened with Mayo, who reportedly started taking cash and merchandise as a young prep four years ago from an intermediary.

That intermediary allegedly was being fronted financially by Walnut Creek-based sports agency Bill Duffy Associates. BDA, which represents a number of NBA stars and heretofore has built a respected reputation in representation.

Mayo and BDA reached a verbal agreement to represent Mayo last month, so connect the dots on your own. Sad to say, it’s the way the sports universe works with these impressionable but imminent stars these days.

High-end agents have to be ultra-proactive in attracting these clients or they know they aren’t going to be high-end agents for long.

It’s also why the revelations about Mayo aren’t surprising in the least. Others are sure to follow, because a grossly flawed system that benefits every faction but the players is sure to reveal more scurrilous behavior.

The real challenge here is assigning blame. Is it really the athletes’ fault for accepting the money and favors, considering so many come from impoverished family situations and are constricted by the NBA’s age-limit rule?

Similarly, should they be looked down upon because college coaches fight over their services like piranhas — even for that one year — even though the acceptance of a university scholarship corrupts the integrity of the student-athlete ideology?

Look, lay off the athletes. Pampered as some of them may be, they’re being used here. A lot of these kids would follow in the path of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Amare Stoudamire and others and go straight to the NBA to start their earnings clock if they had a real choice.

They don’t. NBA teams got nervous because too many of them were sitting on benches or bombing out, and scouting high school players was becoming too problematic.

With ownership prodding, NBA commissioner David Stern sold the age rule in the league’s last collective-bargaining agreement, understanding the NCAA would be delighted with such an arrangement because it would improve that organization’s star power, however transcient.

The NBA, in turn, didn’t have to foot the bill for a true developmental league featuring a slew of raw, starstruck prep players.

It’s been such a handsome arrangement for both sides that both Stern and Brand have informally discussed bumping the age limit to 20. But the Mayo mess and the likelihood of future scandals could change everything.

For one, it might make the NCAA think twice about serving so cavalierly as NBA enablers. Member schools, too, may regret those one-season wink-wink deals, realizing agents are almost impossible to fend off under the current ground rules and stiff institutional penalties will result.