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Foul play: the charade in college basketball

In the great circle of life known as the professional sports league calendar, we’re about to follow up the crowning of the NBA champions with the ritual of the NBA draft.

Since next Thursday’s draft will be draped with the usual turbocharged hype -- prime-time coverage on ESPN, incessant speculation about teams’ picks, testimonials about the “maturity” of the college freshmen drafted in the first round -- it’s only proper to remind ourselves in advance about the corruption at the heart of this process.

USC’s men’s basketball program, to take a hometown example, has lost its coach and may be sanctioned into near oblivion because of alleged violations of NCAA rules involving its onetime star O.J. Mayo.

Did I say onetime? I meant one-season. When USC recruited Mayo from his West Virginia high school for its Class of 2011, none seriously expected him to get within three years of graduation day as a USC student.

Mayo, like many other marquee college players, joined a three-part charade. USC stayed on the college basketball map for another year; the NBA aged a prospect in a college meat locker for a year so it could make believe it wasn’t drafting a high school kid; and Mayo got a year to hone his competitive skills.

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As my colleague Bill Dwyre has observed, the process is now so open it has a shorthand nickname -- “one and done.”

Nine games into Mayo’s college season, the pro scouts were already projecting where he would rank in the 2008 draft. The worst that anyone said about him was that he wouldn’t be “the next coming of LeBron James.” Well, who is? Mayo was picked third and had a terrific rookie year with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Can anybody really be shocked that in financial terms this arrangement was destined to come unstuck?

The NCAA is investigating whether thousands of dollars in cash and gifts were provided to Mayo at USC in violation of his, ahem, “amateur” standing, and if so, what the university and basketball Coach Tim Floyd knew about it.

The university and Floyd, who abruptly resigned last week, haven’t commented. Mayo denied wrongdoing when the allegations first arose.

The university’s NCAA issues are, so to speak, more than academic.

Men’s basketball brought USC nearly $4.5 million in revenue during Mayo’s year, not counting fans’ booster club contributions and spending on SC sports gewgaws. That’s a fraction of what the football team generates, but the basketball program was on the rise. It’s now beclouded, and serious sanctions could do serious damage to USC’s bottom line.

What’s disturbing isn’t that these young superstars get paid under the table; it’s that the NCAA tries so hard to pretend they’re not already professionals.

“The problem with the NCAA is that it’s a for-profit business that takes advantage of free labor,” says sports agent Jerome Stanley, whose clients have included former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson and the late Celtics standout Reggie Lewis.

It’s only natural that boosters, agents, coaches and assorted other hangers-on look for ways to provide young players with under-the-table down payments on their future pro salaries. That’s especially so given that many promising college players don’t really consider themselves students -- they’re NBA players-in-waiting bridging the one post-high-school year before they can be drafted.

The NBA teams don’t care a whit about these college recruiting and payment issues. It’s not that the teams don’t care about the players at all. On the contrary, they’re deeply interested in the backgrounds of top draft prospects.

“They care about criminal issues, drug behavior, medical issues,” says Paul Chamberlain, president of a Los Angeles-based investigative firm that says it’s often called in by NBA teams to perform due-diligence checks on potential draftees.

“It’s surprising to realize, but some teams also care about character issues.”

Chamberlain, a former FBI man, employs ex-agents and other former law enforcement officials to fan out and interview a prospect’s former coaches, teammates and neighbors for info to supplement what can be gleaned from public records.

That’s understandable, given that under NBA salary rules the top draft pick can be guaranteed more than $10 million over his first two years in the league, with the team retaining renewal options for two years more. (I drew the guarantee figure from the NBA’s 2009-10 rookie scale, which is based on the rookie’s rank in the draft. A team can exceed the figure by up to 20%.)

Chamberlain says one category that elicits almost no interest from his clients is NCAA violations involving payments or recruiting.

“I really doubt that potential NCAA problems outweigh whether a kid can dunk with his left hand,” he says.

Chamberlain won’t identify the teams he’s worked for or the players he’s investigated, but he says that most of the young basketball players he’s investigated are “good kids.”

He also says that although he began performing due-diligence checks in 1983, teams’ interest in the service took off after 1986.

That year brought the death of Len Bias. The University of Maryland star died of an apparent cocaine overdose barely two days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. Bias’ involvement with drugs took the Celtics by surprise, to the extent that many people blame the incident for the team’s subsequent 20-year schneid.

In the aftermath, plainly, every general manager in the league understood that a similar scandal would mean his job. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine an NBA GM losing his job for drafting a kid whose college program has been reduced to a shambles by NCAA sanctions.

That underscores the unsavory pact that academia has struck with the devil of big-time sports. Let’s be fair to USC: The Mayo case is only one among dozens that compromise the integrity of American universities.

“The NCAA system is extremely broken,” Stanley says. “If the NCAA wants true amateurism, then don’t take money from TV. If it’s for-profit, then let the players participate. Either way, the NCAA would be on higher moral ground.”

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Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at michael.hiltzik@latimes.com , read previous columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik "> www.latimes.com/hiltzik , and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.


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