The NCAA and Pacific 10 Conference investigations into Keyshawn Johnson may drag on past the Sept. 9 season opener, leaving USC with the difficult decision of whether to play its Heisman Trophy hopeful.
Sources have told The Times that a swift resolution of the investigation into allegations that Johnson accepted money from a sports agent appears slim.
That means USC might have to decide whether to play Johnson, a senior wide receiver, against San Jose State in the first game, and risk using an ineligible player, which would result in a forfeit.
According to NCAA rules, athletes who are found to have accepted cash or other gifts from sports agents can lose their eligibility.
It leaves the Trojan coaches in a tricky situation because Johnson is one of the marquee players on a team with national championship aspirations and they do not want to unjustly punish him.
"We won't have to address that problem because the whole thing will be over in days," Coach John Robinson said Tuesday.
Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound receiver from Dorsey High in Los Angeles, caught 66 passes for 1,362 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
Not specifically addressing Johnson's case, Steve Mallonee, an NCAA director of legislative services, said schools facing ongoing probes when the season begins are faced with difficult decisions.
"It's very sensitive . . . because of the timing," he said of such situations. "Nobody has suggested a violation has occurred, but as the season starts you have to decide as an institution whether to play the individual. And if you play [him or her] and later on it turns out there is a violation, then you would have to accept the consequences of that. That's the way the system works."
A Pac-10 official first questioned Johnson three weeks ago about his relationship with San Diego sports agent Elliott Vallin. The inquiry was initiated after officials obtained a tape of telephone conversations in which Vallin made numerous references to a $1,200 payment he said he made to Johnson.
The telephone conversations were between Vallin and Jesse Martinez, a one-time sports agent recruiter from San Luis Obispo who has helped NCAA investigators in the past. Martinez recorded the conversations between February and June and made them available to NCAA investigators in July.
When the inquiry began, Robinson said he expected it to be resolved quickly. But because of differences in the stories of the main parties, the investigation has continued.
"It's far from over," a source familiar with the case said. "It's not like it's just sitting there."
Another source said officials were aware of the possible decision facing USC and were trying to resolve it before the season begins.
Johnson, Vallin and a third witness, Tim Shannon of Laguna Hills, told officials that the player was given a $200 loan to pay for rent in May 1993 while he was attending West L.A. College.
The three told investigators that Shannon loaned Johnson the money because they have been friends since 1979. Johnson was the Trojans' ball boy when Shannon was a USC defensive back.
Vallin, Shannon's business partner at the time of the payment, simply was acting on Shannon's behalf in giving Johnson the check, they said.
If officials determine that to be the truth, then it is doubtful Johnson would be charged with rule violations.
Reached in Hawaii, Vallin said Tuesday he provided NCAA and Pac-10 investigators with a copy of a $200 check that was for Johnson.
"It was never $1,200," Vallin said. "That was all hearsay."
Vallin acknowledged referring to $1,200 in conversations with Martinez, but said he did it to taunt him, not because he was telling the truth. The two were in a dispute over an IRS fine imposed on Martinez after Vallin filed a tax form for some work Martinez did.
"It was an innocent relationship," Vallin said of the loan to Johnson. "[I did it] as a favor to Tim Shannon who was out of town [at the time]. That's my only involvement."
Vallin, who is not registered to represent football players, primarily handles baseball talent.