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USC Football & Joe McKnight: Fire? Or Just A Lot Of Smoke?

Do the latest NCAA allegations against USC Trojans running back Joe McKnight spread fire, or a lot of smoke?

Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Two weeks ago, the LA Times revealed that USC was being investigated by the NCAA regarding allegations that a former USC running back received improper benefits while at USC... again. This time, the football player in question is current New York Jets running back Joe McKnight. McKnight played for USC between 2007 and 2009 during which time he is alleged to have received several questionable benefits from a Los Angeles County assessor--who is himself embroiled in an unrelated scandal.

The timing of these latest allegations is not so great for USC's image, which is still shaking off the Reggie Bush scandal, is just emerging from a two year bowl ban, and still has limited scholarships. Of greater concern to USC and Trojan fans is the potential for the NCAA to impose further sanctions on USC, especially in light of the proximity of these allegations to the Bush scandal. So is that concern warranted?

To begin, the allegations seem to be well founded. Joe McKnight is alleged to have received a plane ticket and a car from LA County Assessor Scott Schenter. Schenter is facing 30 years prison if convicted on numerous counts of falsifying documents related to giving illegal tax breaks to wealthy Los Angelenos. While investigating that scandal, the LA Times turned up a number of emails from Schenter's LA County assessor email account as a part of a public records request. In a twist of fate, one of those emails contained a plane ticket receipt that listed McKnight as the passenger and another email was from an auto insurance company that indicated McKnight was using a car registered to Schenter. When the LA Times confronted Schenter at a hearing related to his role in providing illegal tax breaks he admitted to providing McKnight (and basketball player Devon Jefferson) with cash and gifts in hopes the athletes would help him market a new business venture. Joe McKnight has remained quiet on the whole matter.

In other words, the allegations that McKnight received benefits seem pretty well founded. Assuming that he did, the thornier issue is whether those issues were "impermissible benefits." To begin, even if the benefits were impermissible, NCAA Rule 32.6.3 limits allegations in a notice of allegations to violations occurring "not earlier than four years before the date the notice of inquiry is forwarded to the institution or the date the institution notified (or if earlier, should have notified) the enforcement staff of its inquiries into the matter." The McKnight allegations relate to events that occurred sometime between 2007 and 2009, so they could be barred from investigation.

If the allegations aren't barred from investigation, the NCAA still has issues to sort through to determine if the benefits McKnight received were impermissible. NCAA Rule states generally that an impermissible benefit is any benefit arranged by an "institutional employee or representative of the institutions athletics interests" that is not expressly authorized by the NCAA. Typically, the NCAA is not known to look kindly on benefits such as money, plane tickets and cars (the benefits at issue here). Indeed, NCAA Rule specifically prohibits an "institutional employee or representative of the institutions athletics interests" from bestowing money, transportation (such as plane tickets), or the use of an automobile upon a student athlete.

However, receipt of any benefit (including prohibited benefits) is permissible if the same benefit is generally available to the institution's other students and family members. Accordingly, any benefit is arguably permissible so long as it's not related to the students special status as an athlete. On the other hand, the NCAA, like most parents, generally tells kids not to accept candy from strangers.

Additionally, the rules don't explicitly forbid an athlete from receiving benefits from anyone and everyone; the rules only forbid the arrangement of a benefit for an athlete by an "institutional employee or representative of the institution's athletics interests." That said, the rules broadly define "representative's of the institution's athletics interests" to include anyone that the institution knew or should have known to have, among other things, contributed to the institution's athletic department or is otherwise involved in promoting the institution's athletics program. It's not a stretch to imagine that a gentleman who bankrolls athletes, flies them around the country and lets them use his cars could fit this definition.

Long story short, even if Joe McKnight was using a car registered to Schenter and accepted a plane ticket from him doesn't mean those benefits were impermissible in the eyes of the NCAA. Indeed, the NCAA and USC previously looked into McKnight's use of a Land Rover in 2009 and didn't find any sanction worthy behavior. Even so, when a maligned public employee admits to giving away cars and cash to induce athlete's participation in a marketing venture the NCAA is not prone to look the other direction.

That being the case, it's reasonable to speculate as to how these allegations might play out given that USC remains on probation and is only two years removed from a major NCAA penalty. A major concern for Trojan faithful has been whether these McKnight allegations will brand USC as a "repeat violator." A repeat violator is subject to enhanced penalties, which looms large for USC given the severity of current penalties. According to rule an institution shall be considered a "repeat violator" if it is determined that the institution has committed a "major violation... within five years of the starting date of a major penalty." The repeat violator rule raises some interesting timing issues. Obviously, not more than five years have passed since USC began serving a "major penalty," but USC began serving its penalty in 2010, and these allegations relate to events that occurred between 2007 and 2009.

Given that these violations occurred before USC began serving a major penalty, it stands to reason that they should not be hit with a repeat violator penalty. The point of the "repeat violator" rule is to provide harsh consequences for institutions that continue to violate the rules after they have been penalized, and thereby a stronger incentive to remain compliant. To put it in context, it wouldn't seem fair to put someone back in jail for violating the terms of their probation based on something that happened before they were even given the terms of their probation.

Perhaps there are some idiosyncratic NCAA rules or policies that will place these allegations within the five year repeat violator window. However, the repeat violator rule does make clear that the date relates to the violation, and not the date the report is filed. Even so, John Infante, creator of Bylaw Blog, reported to Neon Tommy that he believes the allegations against McKnight fall within the five year window. In any case, USC must be found to have committed a "major violation" to be branded a repeat violator. Though, even if USC is not deemed to be a repeat violator, USC still stands to face independent penalties for the allegations.

To that end, Infante speculated that even if these allegations fall within the repeat violator window that USC's good faith cooperation with the NCAA during the Bush scandal, and extraordinary efforts to bring the institution into compliance post scandal, probably legislates against the imposition of harsh penalties. And that makes sense. After all, the NCAA does not have much to gain from dolling out significant penalties for the exact behavior USC has already gone to such great lengths to correct.

In other words, the NCAA will have to ask whether these latest allegations are a new fire or just smoke lingering from a smoldering fire that's already been effectively extinguished.