NCAA spares USC from major penalties in college basketball bribery case
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NCAA spares USC from major penalties in college basketball bribery case

When a wide-ranging bribery scandal uncovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation rocked the college basketball world in 2017, it seemed as if some of the most powerful programs in the sport might face a reckoning. Coaches from roughly a dozen major universities were implicated in alleged wrongdoing.

But as the cases flowing from the scheme have worked their way ever so slowly through the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s deliberative process for punishing rule breakers, the scandal’s impact has been modest so far.

On Thursday, the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions opted not to impose any new major penalties on the University of Southern California, levying only a small fine -- $5,000 plus 1 percent of the budget for the men’s basketball program -- on top of minor recruiting and scholarship limitations the university had self-imposed in previous seasons. USC’s basketball program had a budget of about $6.3 million in 2018, the last year for which federal data are available, which would translate to an additional fine of about $63,000.

The infractions committee credited USC for “exemplary cooperation and self-imposed significant and meaningful penalties,” which led the panel to mitigate the potential penalties against the university.

The coach at the heart of the USC investigation, Tony Bland, USC's former associate head coach, also was spared the worst of what the NCAA might have imposed for finding he engaged in unethical conduct, because he cooperated with the association’s investigation into his wrongdoing.

Bland pleaded guilty in a federal court in 2019 to taking bribes in exchange for directing USC players to a management agency when they turned professional. Bland, whom USC fired in 2018, was sentenced at the time to two years’ probation and 100 hours of community service.

NCAA rules prohibit college sports officials from receiving benefits for facilitating arrangements between athletes at their institutions and agents or financial advisers.

The penalty the NCAA imposed will make it difficult for Bland to return to college coaching -- or at least delay him from doing so. For the next three years, any college that hires him would have to severely restrict his duties unless it can persuade the NCAA that it shouldn’t have to do so.

USC officials said they were relieved by the outcome of the case.

“The NCAA's findings, comments and acceptance of our self-imposed penalties are a reflection of our commitment to accountability, integrity and transparency,” Mike Bohn, the university's athletics director, said in a statement. “We are thrilled this matter is now behind us, and our focus remains on being the most student-athlete centered program in the country.”

Of the dozen or so universities whose programs were thought to be involved in the bribery scandal, three have been punished by the NCAA -- only one with penalties that restrict competition or withhold scholarships.

The infractions panel last year barred Oklahoma State University’s men’s basketball team from postseason play for one year because its former associate head coach, Lamont Evans, received as much as $22,000 in bribes to direct players to hire certain financial advisers when they began playing professionally.

Unlike USC, Oklahoma State was unable to persuade the NCAA panel that it had cooperated fully. Oklahoma State has appealed the NCAA’s penalty, and the appeal is still pending.

Evans faced a 10-year restriction on potential college coaching, more than three times that imposed on USC’s former coach.

The other two universities whose bribery scandal-related cases have been heard by the NCAA so far have both been treated more like USC than like Oklahoma State.

The University of South Carolina, where Evans also coached, was handed a two-year probation and minor recruiting restrictions by the NCAA infractions panel.

And the NCAA committee last fall placed the University of Alabama on three years' probation but did not impose any major competitive or recruiting penalties.

ESPN reports that numerous other major basketball programs -- including the Universities of Arizona, Kansas and Louisville, as well as Auburn, Creighton, Louisiana State, North Carolina State and Texas Christian Universities -- remain under review by the NCAA for allegations related to the bribery scandal.

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