Wednesday, October 31, 2007

USC & Reggie Bush: New Developments

One of the longest running, but potentially spectacular cases of skullduggery in NCAA sports took another step towards a conclusion yesterday:

Former USC and Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush and his family are being sued by the co-founder of a failed sports marketing agency, according to a filing Tuesday in San Diego County Court.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys for New Era Sports & Entertainment co-founder Lloyd Lake, alleges Bush and his family failed to repay a wide array of benefits they received from New Era while Bush played for the Trojans. One of Lake's attorney's, Paul Wong, said that in addition to filing the suit, Lake has agreed to meet with NCAA investigators this week to discuss Bush's involvement with New Era Sports. . . .

Tuesday's filing purports that from November 2004 through January 2006, Bush and his family received cash, a vehicle and shelter as well as labor, material and services tied to New Era Sports – the agency that expected to represent the USC star when he declared for the NFL draft. The suit places the total value of the benefits extended to Bush, now in his second season with the New Orleans Saints, and his family at just over $291,000.

The suit also claims to have written communication from Bush that promises to repay some of the benefits, stating "On January 14, 2006, Defendant Reginald Bush – reaffirmed his commitment to repay (Lake) in a written communication."

If it is determined by the NCAA and Pac-10 Conference that Bush or his family received extra benefits, he would be in violation of NCAA rules. In accordance to NCAA bylaws, Bush's amateur status could be retroactively voided, prompting USC to forfeit games from the 2004 and 2005 seasons, including its latest national championship. Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy could also be in jeopardy. Per the language on the Heisman ballot, any winner of the award "must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA student-athlete." . . .

In Friday's scheduled meeting with the NCAA, Lake could reveal a variety of information, from receipts, bank and phone records, as well as taped conversations between himself, Bush and Bush's stepfather LaMar. Sources say the recordings were made as Bush's agreement to sign with New Era Sports began to fall apart in December 2005. . . .

Sources close to the failed New Era Sports & Entertainment venture said Bush and his family demanded payments be made in cash, to keep the transactions hidden from NCAA scrutiny. Payments were said to have been made in person to Bush's parents in San Diego, while Lake would personally drive to Los Angeles to deliver monthly payments to Bush at his apartment near the USC campus.
The question, of course, is whether ANY information will be handed over the the NCAA, or whether the threat of a meeting is merely leverage in an attempt to get Bush to settle the lawsuit. Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports comments:

Tuesday afternoon, Lloyd Lake, ex-con, former aspiring sports marketer and worst nightmare for the University of Southern California football program, dropped a lawsuit in a San Diego County courthouse and a bomb on the Trojans.

While few of the allegations are new, the lawsuit, and Lake's scheduled meeting with NCAA investigators, changes the entire dynamic of the Reggie Bush case. It is the single worst development that could have happened to USC.

About the only thing, if anything, that can save the Trojans is Bush settling the nearly $300,000 suit between now and Lake's Friday meeting with the NCAA.

NCAA investigators had cited a lack of cooperation with key witnesses in determining whether Bush received extra benefits during his final two seasons at USC and whether the Trojans should have known about it.

That includes Bush, his current marketing agent Mike Ornstein and the two partners in a would-be marketing company called New Era Sports & Entertainment, Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels, who tried to sign Bush. . . .

Bush and Ornstein are saying nothing to the NCAA. Neither is Michaels after Bush settled out of court with him earlier this year for what sources say was between $200,000 and $300,000. Part of that deal, sources said, is a clause that prohibits Michaels speaking with the NCAA.

While the NCAA has other evidence and witnesses, the most dangerous party for USC was Lake. He was the last major witness who could blow this thing up. . . .

The case against USC, like all similar cases involving players and agents, will revolve around two basic lines of questioning, according to three athletic directors and one former NCAA investigator with whom Yahoo! Sports discussed the generalities.

1. Did Bush receive extra benefits that would make him ineligible for competition? And if so, when did they begin?

2. Did or should have USC officials and coaches known about the extra benefits. . . .

Yahoo! Sports previously reported Lake and Michaels didn't just attend USC games, but after two games even went into the Trojan locker room. That's a place most schools severely limit access to and would investigate the background of any non-relative who gains such access.

"Two guys don't just walk into your postgame locker room," said one athletic director. "You confront them immediately and find out. That's basic stuff."

Yahoo! Sports also previously reported that sources claim USC assistant Todd McNair knew of Bush's relationship with both Michaels and Lake. Moreover he spent a night out in San Diego with Bush, Michaels and Lake and knew Bush was staying the night in a $500-a-night suite at the city's Manchester Hyatt.

Yahoo! Sports obtained a receipt for the stay that was paid for by Michaels' credit card. USC refused to allow Yahoo! Sports to interview McNair.

Those bits alone, especially if Lake provides details, could prove to be damning blows for the Trojan program. . . .

But for USC, Tuesday's lawsuit was a terrible development, the kind that can blow open the doors on Heritage Hall, imperil both the past and future and send Carroll scurrying back to the NFL.

Three days and counting until Lake meets with the NCAA. Only another last-second bit of Reggie Bush heroics – this time in the form of a big check to Lloyd Lake – can probably help his Trojans now.

At this point, however, Bush's lawyer says that the lawsuit will be 'vigorously' fought. Stay tuned.

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