- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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For the moment, let's take former USC rent-a-guard O.J. Mayo out of the equation. He says he didn't take about $30,000 in cash and gifts while in high school and college. A now-very-former confidant -- and the confidant's paper trail -- says he did.
It's the classic "he said, he said" scenario. Except that one of the "he saids" is going to be selected perhaps as high as No. 3 in the upcoming NBA draft, become an instant multimillionaire, sign endorsement deals and stick USC with an NCAA investigation and the cleaning bill that comes with it. (By the way, USC, how'd those two semesters of Mayo work out for you?)
But, OK, we'll get back to Mayo, the Trojans and that ESPN "Outside The Lines" report later. Instead, let's talk about how to stick a very sharp fork into the runner/agent/player cheating triangle. The solution is simple and devastatingly effective.
And it has absolutely no chance of becoming reality.
First of all, everybody who thinks agents and their runners aren't constantly dragging their nets for clients needs to get their earlobes flicked. Those agents are as much a part of AAU and college basketball as hair extensions are to Cher.
It isn't unusual for some agents to contribute money to prominent AAU basketball programs (it's a nonprofit organization -- you know, for the kids -- so it's tax-deductible). And if just so happens that the coach of that AAU team has a pro prospect on the roster ... well, you know where this corruption train is going.
The agents with slime between their toes work the angles. They establish "relationships" during those high school/AAU hoop years and then set the hook, usually in college. Happens all the time.
Anyway, that's the essence of the agent business: build client lists, make money off those client commissions.
Some agents build those lists based on their expertise and integrity. Some agents take the money-whip approach. Mayo allegedly got money whipped. If so, he isn't the first one. But wouldn't it be nice if he were one of the last?
Let's say Mayo did what Louis Johnson, who was once part of Mayo's inner circle of friends, alleges he did: accept about $30K in cash and goodies such as a plasma TV, clothes, meals, hotel rooms, cell phone service and airplane tickets from Los Angeles events promoter Rodney Guillory. If you're Mayo and Guillory, what's the downside?
Thanks to the galactically flawed one-and-done rule adopted by the NBA, Mayo was never going to see his sophomore year at USC. If the NBA didn't require a draftee to be at least 19 and one year removed from high school, Mayo likely would have never been at USC in the first place.
So Mayo is gone. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mayo took his last USC final exam Wednesday, stopped long enough to say Johnson's allegations were "a publicity stunt," and soon drove away in a new Porsche Cayenne GTS. It could have been his car. It could have been a friend's car. All I know is, earlier this week, Mayo said he was "a struggling college student" who rode his bicycle to classes.
If an NCAA investigation uncovers rules violations, there's nothing it can do to the man who allegedly provided the money and gifts, or to the player who allegedly accepted them. Mayo would be wearing an Iron Man suit -- invincible from the NCAA and happily embraced by the NBA team that drafts him.
Guillory and the firm he allegedly represented -- Bill Duffy Associates Sports Management -- might be subject to California misdemeanor charges, which isn't exactly the same thing as doing time at the federal pen in Lompoc. And there's always the chance that USC could file a lawsuit. The school has sued agents in the past.
Or we could try something more radical.
"The only way to approach this is to literally go after the agent and the player," said a prominent sports agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "That's the two you've got to stop. Right now there's no deterrent."
So here's what you do: If a player is caught taking cash and/or gifts from an agent or the agent's runner (we can figure out the appropriate monetary threshold later), he forfeits a portion or all of his NBA rookie season. And if a player isn't getting paid, the agent isn't getting paid.
"I think it's a great idea," said the agent. "You've got to take away the agent's ability to make a living and the player's ability to make a living."
I'm not saying this is a perfect solution. The idea needs a can of spackle to fill in some holes. But at least it would hold the player and agent financially accountable for any rules violations. It would serve as a deterrent. And it would be a nice way for the NBA to say it's not going to reward cheaters.
Of course, the National Basketball Players Association, which disciplines agents every Paleozoic Era, will never go for it (officials there could not be reached for comment late Thursday). But I could see NBA commissioner David Stern at least considering the idea. If it betters the game, Stern is open to suggestions -- and putting the squeeze on these types of agents and players would do exactly that.
The agents know the rules. They also know the NCAA can't touch them, that the NBPA rarely does anything, and that they'll take their chances on misdemeanor charges and lawsuits.
The players know the rules. For example, newly signed men's basketball players at Michigan State receive a review of rules regarding agents and extra benefits as early as the spring prior to enrollment. About two months before the season begins, there's another meeting regarding agents and other topics. Throughout the season, compliance department officials e-mail players regarding agents and send letters to the players' parents detailing agent dos and don'ts. And compliance officials travel periodically with the team during the regular season and always during the postseason.
Similar safeguards are in effect at USC, said a school spokesperson, which means no one can claim ignorance of the rules. Mayo didn't.
"I understand compliance and I understand the rules," he told the L.A. Times.
Understanding them is one thing. Fearing what happens if you break them is another.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What can be done about college athletes who break rules and then bolt for the NBA? How about a suspension (without pay) to start their careers?