I'm worried about USC.
Worried the Trojans have fallen into the same trap that Manny Ramirez fell into when he doped to gain an edge and then went into hiding when he was caught. The trap should be easy enough to spot. It's affixed with a sign:
Win at Any Cost.
Once inside this trap, ethics fly out the window. A new mind-set is created: Win enough, with enough flash, and few will care how you climbed to the top, particularly not the die-hard boosters who shell out big money for season tickets, new facilities and the right to gloat about their team. Win enough, with enough sizzle, and the hard questions will be easy to elude. There will be no need for explanation. Probably, no day of reckoning will ever come.
I'm worried about USC because nobody is talking. There's no real word from the coaches, Pete Carroll and Tim Floyd, whose teams now sit squarely in the NCAA's cross hairs over well-publicized accusations of payments and favors to athletes who made a real difference in every game they played.
More important, maybe more serious, there's also nothing coming from the men who hired the coaches. Steven Sample, USC's president? Silence. Mike Garrett, USC's athletic director? The same.
Last week, when I submitted a request to interview Garrett, Floyd, Carroll and Sample, the university's media relations department essentially said, Sorry, but on the advice of school lawyers, there won't be any talking from anybody while an NCAA investigation is underway.
With all the nyets the media is getting, it's as if USC has suddenly morphed into the Soviet Politburo, circa 1972.
I'm hardly alone. When a colleague who covers USC basketball recently attended a boosters dinner given by the Trojans in Irvine, what he mostly got was a cloud of evasive dust.
Despite a warning that questions about the investigation were off limits, one in the crowd asked the coaches if the school was ever going to emerge from the NCAA doghouse. Carroll answered by saying he'd long wanted to build a program where "everyone was coming after us." Such scrutiny, he gushed, was the price paid "for being on top."
I'm an admirer of Carroll, not nearly as much for what he's done on the football field as for what he's done in our inner cities. But I'm sorry, his answer to that booster turns the stomach. It was wrongheaded. You want people coming after you on the field, not with these kinds of accusations. It was arrogant. The kind of arrogance that leads to trouble by blinding truth and shadowing humility.
Now I know what many among the USC faithful, lost in the daze that comes with winning, will say to this. They'll parrot the legal-minded stance like the one typed up recently by the school's chief counsel:
"Our decision not to respond publicly to the allegations made in the media against USC, our coaches and our student-athletes simply reflects our responsibility to protect the integrity of the investigative process and to comply with all NCAA regulations."
Paul Pringle's reporting in The Times today not only raises serious questions about how seriously USC is taking this investigation, it also shows that any of this quartet -- Sample, Garrett, Carroll and Floyd -- could speak if he wanted.
There's no NCAA gag order. No law prevents it. If America's president can face the media during major investigations into the White House -- something we've seen time and again -- USC's leadership can speak up now.
They work, after all, for a reputed educational institution charged with shaping young minds; an institution that plays its football games at a publicly supported stadium, an institution granted nonprofit status that rakes in tens of millions of dollars each year, all tax free, all made at a time our society could use the tax money.
Ethics demand they talk. This much they owe all of us -- Trojans fans, Trojans haters, the uninitiated, the undecided -- a better reply than no comment and a Nixonian, conspiratorially tinged "this is what I've always wanted, we're just so supremely ahead of the pack that everyone wants a piece of us."
They could open up and give straight-shooting answers on how this is affecting what they do, how exactly they are working to ensure there's not even a whiff of impropriety in the future, and how, from now on, USC will follow to a T not only the letter of the law, but the law's spirit.
The basketball team could start off by ending its squirrelly practice of luring recruits by hiring their parents.
They could step up, field questions and make a promise: Look, we're deeply embarrassed even by the perception that we've skirted the rules. It's a stomach-turning thought. We're doing our level best to investigate and if we turn up major violations, major changes will be made, major heads will roll.
I'm not talking about lopping off a few low-level assistants off campus.
I'm talking about the leaders. The coaches, yes. And just as important, the men who hired them -- Sample and Garrett.
Sample and Garrett either know more than they'll ever let on, or they should know more. They captain the ship. They set the tone. They create the culture. At USC, we know that to be a winning, wealth-creating culture.
Question is, has that culture become a trap affixed with a sign that reads Win at Any Cost?