Pac-10 growth, USC sanctions don't mix

Today's lesson, courtesy of those responsible for overseeing athletic competition between institutions of higher learning: Cashing in on the marketability of your football prowess is off-limits if you're a player, but shredding traditions and hanging your fellow schools out to dry while attempting to capitalize on our country's football obsession is perfectly acceptable for universities and conferences.

Thanks for clearing that up, NCAA.

We haven't heard a peep from the NCAA while the Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences attempt to poach schools as they please, drastically altering the college sports landscape, a silence that is either a tacit condoning of the practice or an admission by the NCAA that they are powerless to do anything about it.

And yet the NCAA swings the sledgehammer on USC, punishing current players who weren't there and a coach who wasn't in charge at the time Reggie Bush was living an agent-funded lifestyle.

The Big Ten and Pac-10, the University of Nebraska and University of Colorado, are all putting their own financial interests first, and in doing so may help bring about the demise of the Big 12 conference. Are their actions so different than those of Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo during their time at USC? In each case, aren't the principals leveraging their assets for a profit, consequences notwithstanding?

I have a hard time generating outrage over players seeking extra benefits, and I take no joy in seeing programs punished for the actions of players who do; not as long as the players are going unpaid by a system that reaps huge financial gains from their efforts, while all the while schools and conferences are able to pursue profits unchecked.

The penalties imposed Thursday on USC were severe. The football program will have to forfeit victories for games in which Bush participated, including the BCS championship game in January 2005. The Trojans will lose 30 scholarships over the next three years.

Paul Dee, chair of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, began an explanatory conference call Thursday by saying, "This case strikes at the heart of the principles of amateurism in the NCAA." He went on to issue a scolding reminder that college athletics "should be motivated primarily by education and its benefits, and not otherwise."

I have to ask: Does anyone believe these recent efforts toward conference realignment are motivated by education? How about educating us on the "Pacific" qualities of Colorado, Mr. Dee? Or on the mathematical logic of a 12-team Big Ten Conference?

We all know better. This week's realignments are strictly about putting together groups of football teams that will be able to command the most compensation for television rights packages, or to strengthen a conference's own television network.

There are those who believe scholarships are all the payment a college athlete should ever need. But even if you convince yourself six-figure scholarship packages are adequate compensation for enabling television deals worth billions of dollars, you'll soon have to confront the other problem: the NCAA is incapable of uniformly enforcing the rules.

It's not as if the stuff at USC isn't happening on campuses all across the country. The only difference is that, with both Bush and Mayo, people who were tossed off the money train when it was time for the athletes to go pro got upset about it and complained to reporters.

The NCAA infractions report acknowledges that players with great professional potential will attract more agents and marketers attempting to ply them with gifts to get an edge when it's time to choose a representative. It chided USC for having a skimpy, two-person compliance staff to prevent it.

"Heightened scrutiny is required," the report said. "NCAA members, including USC, invest substantial resources to compete in athletics competition at the highest levels, particularly in football and men's basketball. They must commit comparable resources to detect violations and monitor conduct with a realistic understanding and appraisal of what that effort entails, and what it will cost."

In other words, schools should spend more money to keep the players from getting money. These are the contorted positions the NCAA continues to place itself in by maintaining the charade that players shouldn't be paid, and pretending that they aren't getting paid already.

And yet it doesn't even try to offer an explanation for why it's OK for conferences to make a money grab.

One last chuckle came on the conference call Thursday, when Dee waffled between the English and metric systems in his description of the paperwork involved in the case, saying it stood, "A yard tall. Maybe a meter, give or take an inch."

Mixed measurement units -- mixed messages. That's the NCAA for you, and never more so than this week.