No matter what happens at Oregon, the Willie Lyles situation has shined a bright light on the often-sketchy business of "recruiting services," a business model whereby college institutions can subscribe to scouting services provided by third parties. Attention has also been drawn to the vague, oddly permissive, NCAA rules covering the use of recruiting services.
NCAA Bylaw 13.14.3 sets forth the circumstances under which a school can subscribe to a scouting service. The need for a rule governing recruiting services is clear: the NCAA wants to a prevent a scenario in which a school pays a third party to influence an athlete to come to a that school under the pretense of paying for "recruiting services."
Despite the NCAA's obvious interest in preventing that scenario, NCAA Bylaw 13.14.3 is permissive rather than prohibitive. Instead of prohibiting schools from subscribing to scouting services that do not fall within certain exceptions, NCAA Bylaw 13.14.3 plainly permits schools to subscribe to scouting services that exhibit certain characteristics.
The difference between a permissive and prohibitive rule may seem insignificant at first blush. But the difference may prove significant to an NCAA infractions committee considering whether and how much to penalize a school.
Because NCAA Bylaw 13.14.3 permits schools to purchase recruiting services, the purchase of said services would not immediately raise a red flag for an athletic department's compliance office or even a head coach. Such a purchase might not even raise any yellow flags, again because such a purchase is plainly and unambiguously permitted by NCAA Bylaw 13.14.3.
If purchasing recruiting services does not raise any flags within an athletic department, imposing severe penalties for purchasing those services seems harsh-even for the NCAA. It also legislates against finding a lack of institutional control, a finding that invites the heaviest of NCAA hammers.
On the other hand, NCAA Bylaw 13.14.3 states the requirements of a legitimate recruiting service. If any school subscribes to a recruiting service that does not meet those requirements, the school has violated the bylaw whether or not the violation raised any flags and regardless of the school's intent.
Although NCAA Bylaw 13.14.3 is clear about what is a legitimate recruiting service, the bylaw says little about what is not a legitimate recruiting service. This issue poses little problem when a recruiting service fails to meet the requirements set forth in Bylaw 13.14.3, but what about a recruiting service that meets all the requirements of Bylaw 13.14.3 and exhibits some other questionable characteristics. For example, a recruiting service that charges exorbitant fees or one that becomes publicly available shortly before a school purchases the service.
The bottom line here is that the NCAA may have trouble in certain circumstances determining whether or not a particular recruiting service purchased by a school was legitimate or not. More importantly, even if determining the legitimacy of a recruiting service is cut and dry, assessing the appropriate penalties is far from it. Whether and how to penalize a school for violating NCAA Bylaw 13.14.3 will vary dramatically based on the degree of the violation.
As stated above, the NCAA has not prohibited schools from purchasing recruiting services. Thus, the NCAA has put itself in the unenviable position of determining whether an infraction occurred based on the legitimacy of a service purchased by an institution rather than the conduct of the institution itself.
Will the NCAA harshly penalize a school that paid for an illegitimate recruiting service? Maybe. After all, the service arguably gave the school an inappropriate recruiting advantage. However, the question will still boil down to what that money got the school.
Even if a school paid for a service deemed illegitimate by the NCAA, the NCAA would still need to demonstrate that the money was paid by a school to induce a recruit to come to that school. In other words, the presence of a money trail that leads from Oregon to an illegitimate recruiting service, is not in and of itself an indictment in the same way a money trail leading from USC to Reggie Bush's mom's house might be.
If all Oregon got from Willie Lyles was an illegitimate, worthless scouting report for a lot of money then NCAA might be a bit off base to start handing out sanctions and bowl bans. Reasonable minds and the NCAA can speculate on what else Oregon got from Willie Lyles, but if all the NCAA can turn up is an illegitimate scouting report then don't expect anything more than run of the mill probation requirements and maybe a few less scholarship offers out of Eugene.