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Sizing Up the Oregon (ahem) Penalties

The embarrassment of l'affaire de Lyles has come to its conclusion and left in its wake as many questions as it did answers.


"What should they have done?"

It is the question I keep asking myself. In the case of the Committee of Infractions decision on the Oregon matter concerning a myriad of recruiting violations, I know what I wanted to have done. But, as I search for answers to help me rationalize the folly of it all, I keep asking myself "what should they have done".

I'm not sure I have a good answer at end of all my pondering (and, trust me, I had a lot of pondering time after a long Delta flight with an inoperable Gogo in-flight WiFi system). But answers aren't always necessary. Sometimes, its the thinking process that matters and to think this one through, maybe we should step back and consider just what it is that that was being prosecuted.

In a nutshell, the accusations can be summarized this way: former Head Coach, Chip Kelly, knowingly and wittingly paid Willie Lyles to, at minimum, gain access to recruits that the Ducks were interested in courting and, most likely, to influence their decisions to visit and/or accept scholarship offers from Oregon. He did this both before and after certain rules governing the use of such middlemen were put into effect by the NCAA. At the same time, Chip Kelly, apparently unknowingly, presided over a coaching staff and support administration that, itself, was knowingly violating permissible contact rules with recruits, including fostering ongoing activities with Lyles.

In other words, Chip Kelly knowingly cheated in recruiting and also unknowingly presided over a bunch of cheaters of whom he was responsible for knowing were cheating.

So, those are the facts. Duck fans may not appreciate my tone, but I don't think that they can or would debate the factual content contained within the tone. Where Duck fans begin to differ from other interested parties is in what they believe is the appropriate punitive response to these violations. Duck fans have argued, among other things, that the first most important thing is to actually punish those responsible for the cheating while not burning down innocent bystanders in the program. The second thing Duck fans have commonly argued is that there really isn't precedent for this kind of situation that you can benchmark your penalties against - well, at least not any rational precedent. They freely and knowingly point to the inconsistencies in recent cases like USC, Penn State and North Carolina where the punishments may have exceeded the crimes while other cases, such as Mississippi State, seemed quite the opposite. Finally, they argue, the cheating didn't really help them gain any competitive advantage as "everybody's doing it" and they point to the fact that other schools - including Cal - were also Willie Lyles clients.

I know that depending on what P12 fanbase point of view you subscribe to, whether it be programs like USC or Washington (schools that have gotten unfairly crushed by over reaching in such cases) or Oregon's itself, you may argue the minutia, but, taken holistically, it is really hard to say that Duck fans aren't making fair arguments. Don't we all prefer a system that punishes those who commit the cheating as opposed to the unaware and unaffected players left behind?

In fact, I think we all want an NCAA that handles similar cases more consistently and is less influenced by the "Country Club Crowd" - that small group of the most influential college football brands that decide who gets to be "in the club" and who doesn't. I think we would also all agree that a transparent process that focuses on appropriate punitive actions that target, as much as possible, the actual offenders as opposed to the whole program is a good thing.

Isn't this kind of what we got today?

Let's pretend, for a moment, that the offending school wasn't Oregon and was, instead, Oregon State. Why Oregon State? Mostly because Oregon State has a lot of the same issues that Oregon has when it comes to recruiting. It is in a remote location, it is in a not-too-enticing geographic setting, it doesn't have a strong reputation in academics and, well, it's in Oregon. Continuing with this exercise, imagine that Mike Riley had been the one paying Willie Lyles to steer LaMichael James and Lache Seastrunk to OSU and that the evidence showed that Lyles was using some of that money to provide cash to those players. Imagine that a key administrator in OSU's compliance department was overtly complicit in the scheme.

Got it? Good. So now, fast forward a ridiculously long seven months and examine what these penalties would look like when slapped on Oregon State.

One lost scholarship? The only impact of that is that some hard working walk-on won't be able to earn himself a full ride.

Three years probation? Not totally insignificant, especially if you find yourself in "repeat violator" status a year or two down the road while under it.

Reduced official visits? Again, noteworthy as it forces OSU to rely a little bit more heavily on prospective recruits paying their own way for unofficial visits - a prospect that is more difficult, as an example, for an OSU than it is a UCLA when recruiting a SoCal kid.

A "show cause" for Mike Riley? Whoa. Hold on a second. This is a big one, right? Doesn't this basically mean that the NCAA is forcing OSU to fire Mike Riley, the winningest and most popular coach in program history? That's kind of a big deal, no?

If you want to argue that Chip Kelly leaving the program is a relevant data point and that the accountability ought to shift back to administration as a result, I get it and I don't think I disagree. If you also want to point out that many of the very assistants who were committing violations, including the sleazy Gary Campbell, continue to be employed on the Oregon coaching staff (and thus rebut my point that the cheaters are, in fact, being punished), go ahead - you have a point. But, I think you can see my point here. Under different circumstances, this penalty could be much more significant to a program than the way it is impacting Oregon, and it would fall within the principles of punitive action that we kind of all believe makes sense. Conversely, similar penalties could have even less significant impact at a different program.

Some of you are arguing that the NCAA has basically gone too soft on recruiting violations with this precedent. No argument here. But, that is a whole different point that must be debated outside the context of what should have happened to Oregon and within the context of "what should our recruiting standards be". The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of powerful forces within these college programs that think the recruiting rules are too strict as they are. Thus, I don't think too many of said entities are crying foul over the NCAA's soft peddling in this particular case.

In the end, my emotions tell me that the Ducks got another freebie. I resent the fact that the Huskies, when they were at the top of their apex, got taken down unjustly by a political machine that was more interested in protecting the competitive positions of a few programs rather than administer a regulation process that is fair and consistent. The fact that Oregon was a player in that charade makes this particular issue that much more emotional. When held against the standards of USC and Penn State, the outcome does look like a sham ... at least when you are looking through an emotional purple lense.

But when looked at from a different perspective, maybe you can see a little bit of the logic. Maybe not. I'm curious if you do. While it is impossible to say that USC fans, Duck fans, Beaver fans and Husky fans will ever agree on what the right punishment here was, I think we can all agreed on what a waste of time it all actually turned out to be.

Well, at least until Oregon's next violation.