It’s good to be the University of Oregon. After a 27-month investigation into alleged recruiting violations at Nike’s hometown football program, the NCAA has given the school three years probation and taken away just three of its scholarships. Oh, and Oregon's former head coach, Chip Kelly, has basically been banned from college football for two years -- which is fine by him, because he’s now with the Philadelphia Eagles.
On the one hand, the punishment is a joke. In the NCAA's moral universe, the Ducks committed one of the worst sins, paying a “street agent” named Willie Lyles to steer players to their school.
But let’s look at this in the context of an alternative moral universe, one more closely resembling the normal world. How is what Lyles did -- matching talent with a prospective employer -- any different from what other headhunters do?
Or, if you prefer, how is Lyles's service any different from what high-priced college admissions consultants -- such as Irena Smith here -- do for families who hire them to burnish their children’s college applications? (Actually, Lyles reportedly helped tailback LaMichael James transfer to a high school that would award him a diploma without passing a standardized test that he was struggling with. He's a football talent scout and an academic adviser!)
The Oregon "scandal" is a result of the school -- rather than parents -- paying for Lyles’s services. This is nothing but a reflection of simple supply and demand. There’s an excess supply of academically qualified high school students; there’s an excess demand for elite high school athletes.
So if Willie Lyles is basically just Irena Smith, only without the summa cum laude degree from UCLA, why punish Oregon for hiring him? The answer is easy. The school is part of a cartel that has agreed not to out-source its recruiting. Why? Because once you start paying headhunters to find players, it becomes that much harder to argue against paying the players themselves.
In NCAA-land, if you want to give your head coach an extra million to recruit more aggressively, knock yourself out. Just don’t go writing checks for $25,000 to guys like Lyles.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)