NCAA/USC/McNair: What happened, what now?

Asking questions about how, why and where to from here as we look at the NCAA/USC/McNair case and try to figure things out.

Time to take another look -- or two -- at the McNair/NCAA/USC case. Here's how we'll do it.

Let's start with a look back at how it got to where it did before anyone realized where it was going -- or did they? Then we'll look at what could happen today -- we mean right now -- in a first quick step to resolve the worst case of corruption in NCAA history -- which refers, of course, to the Committee on Infractions blatant bias in the USC case.

Who knew what was coming

Sure, the NCAA decision in June of 2010 hit most people here like a brickbat. But should it have? Just recently we came across this July, 2009 story from The Sporting News that seems now eerily predictive. Its title: "NCAA might finally show its teeth in the USC case."

Here's the lede: Could NCAA sanctions knock Pete Carroll's Trojans out of college football's elite? Watch out, USC. Some influential folks in the NCAA are yearning to hammer a school that has strayed from its rules on recruiting and/or academics. So if what's published about Reggie Bush turns out to be the truth, the Trojans will be the first major football program in at least five years to face serious sanctions.

Never mind of course that as it turned out, even in the COI's dream world, there would be no charges of either "recruiting" or "academic" violations against USC. Details, details.

Not that the lack of recruiting or academic violations stopped an NCAA that was within months of filing the Notice of Allegations against USC. But the sentiment was clear. And one of the lawyers quoted in the TSN story, Gene Marsh, may have been then, as he is now, the most connected college sports lawyer around who seemed to hint that something unpleasant might be coming for USC.

An Ohio State undergrad alum, Alabama law professor and defender of the school in its 2002 case before the NCAA, Marsh would go on to join the COI, then chair it for three years before leaving the committee to move on to representing programs -- from Auburn and Penn State to Ohio State's Jim Tressel -- under investigation by the NCAA.

So we probably should have taken note when Marsh said to TSN in a story about what was coming for USC back in 2009 that: "If you have one of these big, sexy recruiting cases, it could get them teed up," said Gene Marsh, a Birmingham, Ala.-based attorney and former chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. "When the case is right, there's a real possibility that television bans will come back. Bowl bans will come back."

But there's more here. At the time as Marsh was transitioning to private practice representing schools to the NCAA, he was into his sixth month with the Birmingham law firm of Lightfoot, Franklin & White. If that name rings a bell, it's the firm that represented USC through attorney William King, like Marsh, a Washington & Lee alum.

So what was the NCAA's most-connected lawyer, one whose firm represented USC at the time and has been portrayed as working with King to advise USC, doing talking about "television bans" and "bowl bans" in the context of the USC case just months before USC was, in effect, indicted by the NCAA?

Maybe we all should have paid attention to these concluding graphs in the TSN story: "So where does USC fit here? If this sense that rogue behavior has gone too far is legitimate, then someone has to do penance for both its sins and those of under-punished programs past.

"There's no death in USC's football future. But punishing the school for a lack of institutional control -- if the allegations are accurate -- would be the biceps flex the NCAA needs. Banning the Trojans from the Rose Bowl or from TV, or docking them a dozen scholarships for a couple of years, would show no school is untouchable. Everybody best behave, no matter what a school's record book reads or pocketbook holds.

"So be careful, Trojans and fans. Maybe USC's not the biggest offender out there. But for now, it's the most famous, it's at the wrong place at the wrong time, and its punishments could signal that change is coming to college football."

But that change, and punishment would come only for USC, not for the rest of college football. Some people obviously were telegraphing what was coming. But why was it coming at USC?

Apparently because USC was USC. And they hated USC for that. They could never be USC, as we channel Mike Garrett here, and they knew it. So they weren't going to let USC be USC either. And for one other reason that turns out maybe not to be true either: Because they thought they could -- and that they could get away with it.

As we move forward here, we'll get more into the history of the USC case as we visit with some of the insiders who may be able to explain what the USC/NCAA/McNair case looked like then -- and what it looks like now as they, and we, look back at it.

What now . . . and we mean right now

So is there any sort of quick fix for the USC case right now? Sure, we all have our ideas about how this should play out for Todd McNair, USC, the NCAA wrong-doers. But if you could wave a magic wand right now and try to make it right today -- this very minute -- what would you do?

Well, we've heard a thought from a very smart lawyer who has a quick, sensible fix for the USC case. He asks us what would happen in the real world, in a real legal case where the jury had been tampered with, where outside influence by people not allowed contact with the jury had been given access to the deliberators and had done so in ways that unfairly tainted the verdict as they corrupted the process?

What if the prosecutors and the police investigators were allowed inside the jury room to persuade, harangue and maybe even threaten the jury? And now we know they not only did so but denied throughout what they had done. What then?

In the real world, a judge would step in and vacate the verdict. Right now. As if it didn't happen. It would all be gone. All the penalties. All the negative inferences for the wrongly convicted. It would be that simple.

Declare the process hopelessly tainted and start over if there's any reason to do so. Or drop it then and there as should happen here.

If there were any person with any honor heading the NCAA this weekend, they would take this opportunity to step back from the thoroughly corrupted process that led to USC's sanctions and start the healing process by vacating not only the verdict but the Committee on Infractions and the staff involved with the USC case. Goodbye. See you later. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Sure, there would be lots of work to do after that. Todd McNair has to be made whole, as does USC. And the talks to do that should already be under way. But before that happens, the NCAA should have stepped back and stepped away from this sordid chapter highlighting its own severe Lack of Institutional Control.

Nothing is going to make it right. But for disgraced NCAA Pres. Mark Emmert, continuing to say he thought "they got it right" no longer flies. Issuing press releases like the NCAA did last Friday that would have embarrassed Baghdad Bob doesn't help.

This weekend when the whole college sports world is watching a Final Four Indy, Emmert could simply say the way he did so improperly in the Penn State case: Forget the rules, we're going to do the right thing here.

The USC verdict -- and all its penalties and provisions -- are vacated, he should say. We've got a lot of work to do to make this right and make sure it never happens again. But for now, we're taking one small step to walk this miscarriage of justice back.

The only reason we think this could ever happen is the one that motivates Emmert and his bureaucratic buddies more than anything: Not because it would be the right thing to do but because it would make him -- and them -- look good.

Although we'd like it to be because -- in words no one at the NCAA could possibly understand -- the honest, decent and fair thing to do.

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