USC: The payments, losses and big picture

Two interesting articles published Wednesday on USC, which touch on the larger controversies of college football that are barking at us from the headlines seemingly every other day.

The Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein tries to assess the financial damage from USC's Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo scandals. One word: Millions.

This much is clear: The football price tag already runs well into the tens of millions in lost bowl appearances, sagging attendance, attorney fees and other direct and ancillary costs.

Then former LA Times writer and USC player Lonnie White writes about his experiences as a Trojan receiving extra benefits -- or bags of money, if you prefer -- in the 1980s under John Robinson and Ted Tollner.

Once back in his own car, the player smiles when he looks into a small brown bag filled with money. It’s $5,000 cash and it could not have come at a better time.

Sounds like a bad movie. It isn’t. It was life for me when I played college football at the University of Southern California in the 1980s. I wasn’t old enough to drink legally, yet if I was caught, my actions would have had an impact on thousands connected with the program.

To this day, it’s something I’m ashamed about. Rent was overdue and my household bills were delinquent. I needed the money to live. So accepting the $14,000 in different forms of “benefits” over my college years three decades ago was an act of survival.

White seems to believe that more happened in during his time at USC than today because technology makes it more difficult to get away with things.

With today’s media in love with scandals, people would have a field day with some of the “unknown” things that happened within college football programs decades ago.

Everything from $100 handshakes (when players are slipped cash during meet-and-greet events) to sponsored party trips (often featuring women, sex, drugs and alcohol), would be exposed.

But he also writes that he has knowledge of violations going on at present.

I know at least five athletes, who are either a relative or close family friend, who played at the BCS level last season. And they all agree, there’s more rule-breaking going on than people know.

It’s the “dirty secret” of college football that will continue to grow as money and power are connected to the sport.

Obviously, these two stories are related, and they fit in with our present, scandal-ridden time in college football: USC, Ohio State and North Carolina, not to mention the strange situation with Oregon and Willie Lyles.

Big-money ventures are often high risk, high reward. College football is a big-money venture, and cheating to gain an advantage is high risk and high reward.

Further, big stakes often inspire rationalizations at every level that attempt to justify behavior. One thing I've noticed over the past few years: When someone is asked about NCAA rules violations, they reply, "I didn't do anything wrong."

A beautiful non-response.

Did you take money? "I didn't do anything wrong."

Did you provide extra benefits? "I didn't do anything wrong."

Did you steer a player to Program X? "I didn't do anything wrong."

It's not a denial of breaking the rules. And, in the respondent's mind, it's not a lie. Not really. The rules are bad, so breaking them isn't wrong, this thinking goes. Coaches, the NCAA and universities make millions off of sports and the athletes are unpaid. So taking some gifts or money under the table isn't wrong, even if it's against the rules.

And, in a sense, it's not a black act of moral turpitude. It's not like beating up an innocent person just for fun.

Do you always drive the speed limit? Now, think of your sputtering frustration when you get a ticket for going 67 mph in a 55 mph zone. You want to tell the police officer to go stop a real criminal or something, right?

Still, rules are rules, even if the system seems out of whack.

Is there a massive, systemic change that can end corruption and epidemic rules violations in college football? Probably. But it would require a redistribution of wealth, and we know how that goes over in this country. Folks who have it don't like to share it. And we also likely would have to change some laws (read: Title IX).

It's been the wildest offseason I can remember -- at least since last offseason -- and we're not even finished with June. The sport is as exciting and popular as it's ever been. But the enlarged spotlight has revealed the cockroaches scurrying around in the shadows, which is the unpleasant and unintended consequence of that increased popularity.