Joe McKnight, star tailback of USC's football team, has been driving a sport utility vehicle owned by a Santa Monica businessman, an arrangement the school is investigating and which may be in violation of NCAA rules.
The NCAA prohibits student-athletes from accepting benefits from marketing representatives or agents or "extra benefits" based on their athletic ability.
For several weeks, McKnight has been seen driving a well-kept 2006 Land Rover that, according to California Department of Motor Vehicles records, is registered to Scott Schenter.
Schenter, 47, has a background that includes marketing, and a company he owned had previously registered a website called 4joemcknight.com. It is unclear whether Schenter has any ties with USC or whether the school had knowledge of his activities.
If it's found that McKnight is in violation of NCAA rules, it could affect his athletic eligibility. USC's football team will next play against Boston College in the Emerald Bowl on Dec. 26 in San Francisco.
Trouble for McKnight, the Trojans' leading rusher this season with 1,014 yards, would be another hit to a USC athletic program already under investigation by the NCAA and the Pacific 10 Conference regarding allegations that former football tailback Reggie Bush and former basketball player O.J. Mayo received improper benefits while playing for the Trojans. The NCAA combined the investigations to examine whether the school failed to exert proper institutional control.
Tom Yeager, a former chairman of the NCAA infractions committee who is commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Assn., said universities are expected to be diligent regardless of whether they are repeat offenders or are dealing with infractions for the first time. He added, however, "The stakes go up just like someone making a return appearance in court. A judge is not going to be as sympathetic."
A DMV official said records show Schenter paid about $27,000 for the Land Rover and registered it in September. A Times reporter saw McKnight driving it several times in the last couple of weeks.
On Nov. 25, the SUV was parked outside the entrance to USC's practice facility, its emergency lights flashing as players, coaches and athletic department personnel exited through the gate. Several coaches stopped to greet McKnight's girlfriend, who was seated in the passenger seat. McKnight came out of the locker room carrying his son on his shoulders, exchanged pleasantries with Coach Pete Carroll, who was walking with visitors, and made his way to the street where the Land Rover was parked.
The next day, McKnight left practice and drove away alone in the vehicle. He was also by himself as he drove the SUV from practice last Saturday.
Approached Wednesday after practice, McKnight acknowledged riding in the Land Rover but said he has never driven it. McKnight said his girlfriend, Johana Michelle Beltran, works as a secretary for Schenter, although the player said he did not know him.
McKnight and Beltran are the parents of a 10-month-old son, Jaiden. McKnight said the Land Rover was "my baby mama's boss'. "
"I never talk to her about it," he added. "I just see it whenever my girlfriend's around with my kid. I ask no questions. I just do what I got to do."
USC asks its athletes to provide written documentation about the vehicles they drive on campus. McKnight said Wednesday that he had not provided the school information on the Land Rover because he hadn't driven it.
However, Todd Dickey, USC's senior vice president for administration, said Friday that McKnight did provide the school with written documentation that he was driving the vehicle. Tim Tessalone, USC's sports information director, said the running back had been "mistaken" in his account to The Times. Tessalone declined a request to see the documentation or say when the information was filed.
Given a hypothetical scenario such as McKnight's, an NCAA spokesman said the following rules might apply:
NCAA bylaw 188.8.131.52 says that a student-athlete shall be ineligible if he, or relatives or friends, accepts transportation or other benefits from agents or marketing representatives. NCAA bylaw 184.108.40.206.6 prohibits preferential treatment, benefits or services because of the individual's athletic reputation or skill or payback potential as a professional athlete.
Schenter is in South Africa, according to his wife, Dawn. She said she didn't know what connection her husband might have with McKnight. Asked about Schenter's businesses, she said, "He's involved in a lot of things. I don't know what he's doing."
Reached by e-mail this week, Schenter was sent a list of questions regarding his businesses, McKnight and the Land Rover. Since then, he has not responded to multiple requests for answers.
Dickey said USC officials planned to speak with Schenter when he gets back in town next week.
According to documents in the Los Angeles County Registrar's office, Schenter filed papers in May 2008 to own and operate businesses called "USC Marketing" and "Brighter."
Other records show Brighter later registered for 4joemcknight.com and Schenter was listed as the administrative contact for that site and several other domains, including ojaymayo.com and uscmarketing.com. None of those sites are currently active.
Schenter also has a LinkedIn account that says he is president of TeslaVision, though a person who answered the phone at the business' Kirkland, Wash., headquarters said Schenter no longer worked for the company. On its website, TeslaVision is described as providing "communication solutions to the advertising, vending, gaming, marketing, promotion, entertainment, and point-of-sales industries."
McKnight said he was not familiar with Schenter's line of work and that he had spent this season living near campus, apart from his girlfriend and their son.
"I play football and I have a child," said McKnight, who grew up in a low-income area outside New Orleans. "I'm not the type to get into everybody's business. I worry about my own."
He said Beltran's father may have paid Schenter for using the Land Rover, but repeated, "I never drove the vehicle, I've never driven it. I know I can't drive cars I'm not supposed to. If somebody said they spotted me driving, they're seeing wrong. I don't even have the keys."
Provided a document showing that Schenter had owned the domain 4joemcknight.com, the running back said, "I haven't done anything wrong. I'm just being a football player and a father to my child.
"I won't break any rules because I know if I do I can't get on the football field. I'm trying to keep my life secure and stay on the football field."
Beltran and Jaiden attended several Trojans practices and games this season, including a game in September at Washington. McKnight said he didn't know who paid for their transportation to the game in Seattle.
Schenter is a 1985 graduate of Washington's business school, according to its alumni office. TeslaVision has its headquarters just across Lake Washington from Seattle.
Attempts to reach Beltran independently and through McKnight were unsuccessful.
McKnight, a junior, is eligible for the NFL draft and said this week he was undecided whether he would turn pro or return to school. This season, he became the Trojans' first 1,000-yard rusher since Bush and LenDale White in 2005, though he, like the rest of the team, experienced a roller-coaster season.
McKnight was not made available to reporters after practice Friday.
"Compliance has this in a full review and so we'll have to wait and see what happens with that," Carroll said. "I really can't tell you anything. I don't know anything more than that."