Red flag for blue chips

The Baltimore Sun

One by one, the e-mails started popping up this week in very important inboxes at very big schools. At Southern California, at Florida, at Texas. At every university that belongs to a Bowl Championship Series conference, in fact.

"Our new service is designed to assist clients who understand the consequences of relying on perfunctory certifications of high-profile prospects," it read.


Here's the interpretation: Your school can't properly research a prospective student-athlete's background. We can.

In the wake of allegations that another high-profile college athlete might have been on the take, the sanctity of amateurism is again left bruised and battered. If anyone still isn't convinced college sports is really big business, listen to how Michael Buckner, a Florida attorney and private investigator, explained why his firm sent those e-mails earlier this week.

In business, before any acquisition, agreement or major transaction is complete, due diligence is performed to make sure every party is sound and upstanding. We're talking background checks, chasing money trails, combing through criminal records, researching relationships. It's all standard practice.

"In the corporate world, this is not a big deal. It's just how you do business," Buckner said. "And in many corporate cases dealing with due diligence, you're talking about a lot less money [than college athletics]."

It's hardly a news flash that the purity of revenue-producing sports is wobbling on a tight rope. This is an era in which we barely think twice when a college coach offers a scholarship to a middle school athlete or when a film crew shadows a California sophomore to document the hoop prodigy's life.

But what is new is someone from the private sector offering to police these hot prospects before they set foot on campus.

I say it's sad.

Buckner says it's a natural evolution.

Buckner attended USC as an undergraduate and is a fan of Trojans sports, which means he has followed with special interest the news reports surrounding Reggie Bush and, more recently, O.J. Mayo, two college stars accused of pocketing cash and goods before embarking on professional careers.

"I was disappointed and frustrated," Buckner said. "We're already going through the Reggie Bush investigation, and now we have this Mayo case on top of that? What was running through my head was: There has to be something a university could do, a resource they could acquire to protect the institution against allegations by the NCAA later on."

Buckner heads a firm based in Pompano Beach. He published the 2004 book Athletics Investigation Handbook: A Guide for Institutions and Involved Parties During the NCAA Enforcement Process and said he assisted the NCAA with its investigation into prep schools in 2006-07. For him, offering his expertise to university compliance offices only seemed natural. After all, they can only do so much.

A school's athletic department isn't likely to catch everything. Mayo, in fact, was reviewed carefully by USC, the Pac-10 and the NCAA before he played his lone season at USC.

The NCAA Eligibility Center processes 65,000 student-athletes a year, according to an spokesman. Though they might find academic red flags, identifying legal woes (especially for a juvenile) and suspect financial matters is a lot tougher.

A Division I university has time and resources for only so much. A typical school might welcome 200 new student-athletes on campus each fall. The colleges ensure each academically qualifies, but most don't do thorough background checks on every recruit. That's part of the reason Maryland offered a basketball scholarship to Tyree Evans last month without knowing the extent of his criminal history. (After much scrutiny and the revelation of five criminal charges, Evans withdrew his application last week.) In cases like Evans', all you might need is a computer, Internet access and about 10 minutes to pull up court records.

In Mayo's case, his circle of suspect characters had been noted in media reports for a couple of years. Buckner said if the information and allegations that have been reported prove to be true, the circumstances surrounding Mayo's missteps could have been discovered long before ESPN cameras played gotcha journalism and long before Mayo had even put on a USC jersey.

"Our services will provide the USCs of the world a resource where we can go out and do the legwork, the proper due diligence of these blue-chip, high-profile prospects," Buckner said. "That way, the prospect and his or her family are cleared of any type of rumors or innuendo out there, the school is protected, and if there's anything that comes up later on, they can say, 'Hey, we did everything within our power to make sure we complied with NCAA rules.'"

It's too early to tell whether schools will take advantage of this new service, but Buckner said he plans on blanketing the remaining Division I universities with information next week.

To me, it's another unfortunate sign of the times.

To Buckner, it's just smart business.

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