After a two-year investigation into the Oregon football program's illicit payments to recruiting analyst/player agent Willie Lyles, the NCAA finally handed down its punishment. Lyles, who was an advisor to coveted Texas halfbacks LaMichael James and Lache Seastrunk, accepted payment from Oregon for bogus recruiting reports and, presumably, influence with James and Seastrunk.
The punishment was surprisingly insignificant. The NCAA imposed a three-year reduction of one scholarship on the program, further reductions in scouting days and the amount of paid visits the program is allowed to host, and three years of probation.
However, the program avoided a postseason ban — critical to a team that has played in BCS bowls in each of the last four seasons. And the harshest punishment of all, an 18-month show-cause ban against former coach Chip Kelly, will run while he is coaching the Philadelphia Eagles. Whereas Ohio State, USC, and Penn State have had successful programs crippled by postseason bans and scholarship limitations in recent years, Oregon walks away from the Lyles affair largely unscathed.
Naturally, Oregon fans are happy. From SB Nation's Oregon blog, Addicted to Quack:
The penalties are at best a slap on the wrist for the Oregon football program, and reaction has been mixed across the country as to whether the punishment fits the crime, in part because the Ducks have averaged only 83 scholarship players of the 85 maximum over the last four seasons.
The penalties enforced are very similar to those proposed by Oregon in the summary disposition process late last year, and the biggest difference appears to be an added year of probation tied to Oregon's "repeat violator" status.
SB Nation's Dan Rubenstein, a noted Oregon fan, was also ecstatic about the outcome.
The national reaction was mixed. Sports Illustrated columnist Andy Staples approved of the punishment, but sees the inherent contradiction between Oregon and other programs wrecked by NCAA sanctions:
While [the punishment] may have allowed Oregon to get off light, punishing the current players would not have been a better alternative. No one on Oregon's roster authorized a payment so Lyles might help deliver Temple, Texas, tailback Lache Seastrunk -- who has since transferred to Baylor -- to Eugene. Common sense would dictate that the players on Oregon's roster shouldn't have to suffer. Miraculously, the COI exercised common sense. But because a past COI punished a huge group of USC players for Reggie Bush's wrongdoing, and because NCAA president Mark Emmert circumvented the usual disciplinary process to punish a generation of Penn State players for the wrongdoing of Jerry Sandusky and those who enabled him, the populace wants blood. The inconsistency is the problem. Everyone thinks the NCAA and the schools make things up as the go along because they do make things up as they go along. Meanwhile, the violations themselves are usually byproducts of a flawed system created by the NCAA and the schools. That certainly was the case with Oregon.
CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd thinks the Oregon sanctions will only embolden more "advisors" to leech off high school recruits:
This was supposed to be the case in which the NCAA claimed back some turf in that dirty little 7-on-7 war. The association was so serious about the battle, it had hired a former Indianapolis homicide cop to oversee it. Bill Benjamin didn't last a year and has since resigned.
Instead, the message sent Wednesday was that more Willie Lyles can thrive and survive. OK, so he's a good guy, a mentor, smart. He's also the guy who told Yahoo! Sports two years ago, "I look back at it now, and [Oregon] paid for what they saw as my access and influence with recruits. The service I provided went beyond what a scouting service should ... I made a mistake, and I'm big enough of a man to admit I was wrong."
And, by associating with Lyles, so was Oregon.
Reaction around the Pac-12 is mixed, with most fans flummoxed by how light the Ducks' punishment was. Conquest Chronicles, which has a history with this sort of thing, blames USC's administration for the Reggie Bush penalties and does not believe they will be levied against another program again:
I am hardly mad at Oregon. In fact I am glad they got off. No school should EVER go through what USC has gone through.
Oregon played it perfectly and did exactly what USC should have done...hire an expert to walk them through it.
When you see the results of the last few NCAA major infraction cases that were supposedly going to be the crimes of the century you see that those respective schools used every tool available to them.
Contrast that to USC, who buried their heads in the sand.
UCLA's Bruins Nation took a break from celebrating the school's national baseball championship to concur with their cross-town rivals on the difference between the Oregon and Southern Cal investigations:
One thing that worked in Oregon's favor when compared to another notable, local infractions case was the reality that the athletic department in Eugene took the NCAA's investigation seriously and gave all the cooperation that could be expected. The university and the NCAA nearly reached an agreement on findings and sanctions months ago which were very similar to those announced this morning - with disagreement on one point leading to the Committee on Infractions hearing the case.
Washington blog UW Dawg Pound sees the Oregon sanctions as the start of a brave new world of street agents and summer coaches controlling recruiting nationwide:
Paying for influence with recruits will soon become commonplace (though teams won't be so stupid about it as Oregon was -- they'll either pay cash or make sure they get something back for their money) and the already sketchy world of college football recruiting will devolve into something resembling the wild west that is college basketball recruiting.
The good news is that this sort of puts every team on a level playing field. Teams now know what the risks of using street agents are, and that the punishment for getting caught doesn't outweigh the benefits gained.
In all, the sanctions levied against Oregon on Wednesday were remarkably close to what Oregon had self-imposed, were reasonable given the circumstances -- Lyles, Kelly, and both players Lyles represented are no longer with the program -- and did remarkably little to deter the same kind of activitiy by other programs in the future. For once, the punishment fit the crime. Finally, the NCAA acted reasonably.