NCAA Expert: Joe McKnight Scandal Will Not Affect 2012 USC Football Team
The Los Angeles Times reported that Scott Schenter, who is being investigated for corruption in the L.A. County assessor's office, provided gifts to two former USC athletes in an apparent violation of NCAA bylaws. Schenter allegedly gave USC running back Joe McKnight a Land Rover and airline ticket, and provided Trojans basketball player Davon Jefferson about $3,700.
USC reported the Land Rover gift to the NCAA back in 2009, and received no violation, according to university athletic director Pat Haden. The school also reported the allegations reported by The Times to the Pac-12 and NCAA and vowed to investigate the matter further.
We wanted to talk to an NCAA expert about the case, and there are few with better knowledge than John Infante. He is a former director of compliance at Loyola Marymount and Colorado State, and also ran the "Bylaw Blog." Now he writes as an NCAA Expert for AthleticScholarships.net. The following is a Q&A with Infante that took place Sunday.
1. How would you describe NCAA probation, specifically the probation USC is currently on?
Infante: There's two type of things when people think about probation. One is what the NCAA *calls* probation, which is essentially a lot more back and forth between the school and the NCAA about how they're monitoring certain things that were involved in the violation.
In the case of USC, for instance, there's probably a lot of back and forth about: where players are living and how they're monitoring that, what kind of cars players are driving, who is around the football team in terms of boosters or celebrities. And even the steps USC is taking. Are you getting leases? Are you getting car registrations? Where have you restricted access that maybe people might have had more access before?
The other part of probation that people talk about is the five-year, repeat-violator period. A probation can be normally anywhere from two years to four or five years. But the repeat-violator period is always five years. And essentially, while you're under that, you are subject to enhanced penalties if you have another major violation that occurs during that five-year period after your report.
2. In this specific Joe McKnight incident would USC fall under that repeat-violator designation?
Infante: They would, if there was found to be a major violation. And given that it's the second incident involving McKnight, that might be more likely. Although that first one, they went and didn't find anything. But you could also say, 'Hey, if something like this happens, you should be watching that athlete more carefully.'
One of the points the NCAA tried to make in the USC case was that if you have these high-profile athletes, especially athletes where agents are trying to get close to them like this, that's something you need to keep a very close eye on.
If they found another major violation, then yeah, USC would be under the repeat-violator penalties. The penalties would be enhanced from what they are, unless the Committee on Infractions decides not to.
I think USC has probably made enough changes that the Committee on Infractions might look at it as a whole new case. Yes, it is similar to what happened with Reggie Bush. But at some point, they get credit for doing the type of things that they have done to prevent this from happening. And if it happens again? Well, there is only so much you can do to prevent it.
3. How beneficial was USC's proactive approach to the McKnight situation in 2009?
Infante: I think it's going to be a lot of help to them, the NCAA finding that USC had cooperated. I think that's kind of an important point from the original Reggie Bush case, that SC was uncooperative or was withholding information from the NCAA. And it says specifically in the final report that the NCAA met its obligations to report.
Look at how SC's relationship is much more than simply fulfilling their duties as a member. It is much more working with the NCAA to get this problem under control. It's not just the measures they have taken in this specific case, with this one athlete.
If you look at what they have done more generally, in terms of beefing up their compliance staff, going really above and beyond what any other school is doing in compliance monitoring and compliance systems. And then working with the NCAA to also raise awareness of issues like money that goes to agents, in different meetings that you've seen on the SC campus that the athletic department has been involved with.
4. If it is deemed a minor violation, what would a proper punishment be?
Infante: If it was considered a secondary violation, there is a possibility that USC would vacate games that he played in after he received these gifts. It's very standard in a case where a player becomes ineligible and then plays, that they have to vacate the games.
You might see a small scholarship reduction, because all those penalties you see in major infractions cases can also happen at a lower level in terms of a secondary infractions case. So you have cases where a school gives up a scholarship or two, even in a secondary infractions case. That might be one thing, if you have this athlete who received significant benefits, maybe they give up an extra scholarship. When that would occur, I'm not sure. It all depends on how long it takes to process the case. Maybe the NCAA cuts them a break and says your first year after the current scholarship reductions, you're going to be down one.
And then there might be a small fine that they pay, which again is a standard thing when you have an ineligible player. It's a little $500 fine per game that he played in, I think up to $5,000 that they might have to pay. It would be notable, just because of the status that USC and the fact that they are currently on probation and facing scholarship reductions. But other than having to possibly vacate the games he played in after he received the gifts, I don't think it would be that notable.
5. And if it is a major violation?
Infante: If it's a major violation, but they say 'we're not going to add on as a repeat violator,' you might see something along the lines of two to five scholarships starting after the current penalties. I don't think they'll take it out of initial scholarships, they'll take it out of overall scholarships.
6. So what would be your worst-case scenario?
Infante: If it were to be "repeat violator"… if the NCAA were to come in and say, 'You had this big problem and you still haven't cleaned it up.' I think you would see an extension of the current penalties: another year or two under similar scholarship reductions as they are right now and potentially another postseason ban.
Again, it all depends on how long it takes to process the case, but I think the earliest you would see that is next year. So I don't think there is anything in there that would threaten the current team and the current season.
But that would be an ultimate worst-case scenario. I just don't see the NCAA punishing the school that, despite all the problems, has now sort of become the poster child for taking compliance really seriously.
Maybe someone talked about the death penalty [in the Reggie Bush case]. I don't think that would be on the table. The worst-case scenario would be another postseason ban and another year or two of similar scholarship reductions, down 10 and then down 10 on the recruiting class. That would be really harsh. That would be the edge…
7. Extreme worst-case scenario, right?
Infante: Yeah, that would be something that USC, both their athletic department and the fans, would be upset at. Technically, it would be among things that could happen. But it would be so on the edge of what you would expect from the NCAA that not just USC would be angry, but other schools would be angry.
If you look at Miami or North Carolina, who are under probation or will be under probation soon, that say 'we did all this stuff to fix these kinds of problems you found. And now we're basically being told that if anything happens, we're not going to get any leeway. We've done everything you've asked and more.'
I don't think that is the message the Committee of Infractions will want to send with another USC case.
8. What would you predict as to how this will play out?
Infante: If it is a major violation, my prediction is that it is right on the edge. It's a significant amount of money. But there has been this amount of money, like basketball players with their official visits, where they have re-paid it and gotten back their eligibility. It was really more of a reinstatement than an institutional issue.
The fact that it occurred before USC had new things in place… I think it goes back to 2009. And it really wasn't until 2010 that USC kind of had their whole new system up and running. With all that, I would say you are looking at probably a very bad secondary infraction, or a very minor major infraction, maybe a couple more scholarships lost.
One possible thing might be that the NCAA calls it a major infraction, puts someone on probation, but really doesn't have any other penalties going forward. Vacate games, pay a fine, go under probation. And really, the whole point of it is to say, 'You've done a lot of good work, but you had this other issue pop up. So we just want to make sure over the next couple years that all that good work is really making an impact before we let you off probation and let you back to the same sort of monitoring and relationship with the NCAA that all the other schools have.
9. Are the basketball and football cases handled separately by the NCAA?
Infante: It might. Again, it's going to be a very confusing case because I don't know if there is any school that has changed how they operate as radically as USC has, between the time the violation occurred and the time it came to light.
Which to me was kind of the whole crux of their original case. It wasn't just that you had this one football player who got this money and gifts from these guys. On top of that, you had a basketball player come in at the same time. You had these two cases that on the face of it looked very similar.
The hardest part to predict is how the NCAA is going to handle something that happens. At USC, before their report came out, they said 'We need to have the biggest compliance staff in the country. We need a new AD. We need to really innovate in this area and have things that nobody else has. Use things that nobody else does.' And reconciling that with 'Yeah, but you still have this violation you have to answer for.'
So I think the two might be combined into one case. It might speak to there possibly being some other slightly tougher probation, maybe an extra year on the probation or something, because two sports were involved.
My prediction is along the lines of the NCAA saying, 'You've done a lot of good things since this happened, and you've already kind of answered for this type of thing, even if it wasn't with these two athletes. So let's continue to see if this is going to work in Los Angeles. USC needs to start getting credit for the fact that their degree of difficulty is probably harder than anybody else's.
You have these schools that have gotten in trouble, with sterling reputations up until that point. And it looks like they're getting credit for it. And then you have schools that have kind of continually come back to the same place.
At some point, to kind of stop the cycle, they need to look at: should the school that got complacent get as much credit as the school that is the little boy with the finger in the dike? [USC is] trying to hold back the fact that every third person in L.A. wants to become an agent and is going to hang out around football players until one of them goes to talk with them.
Thanks again to John for taking the time to offer his insight. Follow him here.