Last year, comedian David Letterman shocked his TV audience by confessing his sexual affairs with female staff members. Given Letterman’s humor, I suspected it was a gag for which there would be a witty punch line.

But it wasn’t a joke. Letterman admitted that he had exercised terrible judgment for which he was profoundly sorry. Apparently Mike Garrett, athletic director at USC, didn’t watch that particular Letterman show.

Last week, after a four-year investigation, the NCAA released a 67-page report detailing serious violations in not one but three of USC’s athletic programs. (I didn’t read the entire 67 pages, I’m waiting for the video.) The report did include, however, the four dreaded words, “lack of institutional control.”

The NCAA hit the football program with a two-year postseason ban, the loss of 30 scholarships, and a four-year probation. (SC basketball had already self-imposed sanctions.) Many had predicted that cash cow USC would merely receive a slap on the wrists. This was more than a slap and would seem to involve a different part of the anatomy.

Even as a UCLA alum, I’m not trying to be sanctimonious. Rick Neuheisal, the Bruins football coach, is no stranger to NCAA sanctions. Although, via a lawsuit, he received a $4.5 million settlement, much of it from the NCAA, Neuheisal speaks of his past infractions with contrition. USC officials speak of theirs with defiance, as though circling the wagons. (Or as the Times’ T.J. Simers suggests, circling the BMWs.)

In addressing a group of SC boosters, Mike Garrett said that he’d “read between the lines” of the report and concluded “There was nothing but a lot of envy. They wish they all were Trojans.” Really? The problem is NCAA jealousy? Not the $300,000 of illegal perks given to Reggie Bush, or those given to O.J. Mayo, or Joe McKnight?

The “promoter” who brought O.J. Mayo to USC, Rodney Guillory, already had put the university in hot water years earlier with alleged illegal gifts to former Trojan basketballer Jeff Trepagnier. How was Guillory even allowed back on campus? Evidently, greed trumped judgment.

Garrett was thoroughly unapologetic: “Today I got a purpose for really wanting to dominate for another 10 years,” adding that he felt invigorated. “Today I know we’re bigger than life.” Garrett sounds like Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in the “Caine Mutiny” rambling about missing strawberries. Actually he sounds like a guy about to resign.

Apparently crime can pay. The sanctions don’t go into effect until after the appeals and I’m guessing the Trojans have a boatload of savvy attorneys. Either way, SC gets to keep its 2004 AP national title. (Though they likely will lose the BCS version.) Bush parlayed his Heisman into mega-millions and Mayo is an NBA star. (One possible lesson for SC, don’t give scholarships to athletes named O.J.)

And what about former SC coach Pete Carroll? His years of volunteer work in the inner city of Los Angeles were nothing short of heroic. But his “Who could have known?” explanation of the violations sounds like “the dog ate my homework.” Carroll throws Bush under the bus who in turn denies any wrongdoing. How convenient. But last season, didn’t Carroll, or any of his coaches, ever question McKnight rolling up to practice in a $40k ride?

Of all the times Carroll had offers from the NFL, he went this year. What a coincidence. He skipped out of Dodge for a $33 million contract from the Seattle Seahawks and avoided the NCAA hammer. The real injustice is that the guilty will go unpunished whereas the innocent, the players who remain at SC, will pay the price.

It’s estimated that the sanctions may cost USC $20 million. However, during the past nine years, the Trojans made hundreds of millions. But it’s far from just at USC. Major college sports are a cash register. Many years ago at college football games the chant used to be “boolah, boolah.” Today it’s “moolah, moolah.” The line plunge has become the bottom line plunge.

But the disturbing truth is that we fans who pack the stadiums or watch on TV don’t really want collegiate sports cleaned up. If we did, they would be. What we want is for OUR team to win and go to a glamorous bowl game. If rules are bent a little, so be it, just so long as our school doesn’t get caught. Well, SC got caught.

When I read the comments of Garrett, Carroll, Mayo and Bush, I’m almost waiting for the punch line, which should include the words “all the way to the bank.” And, as opposed to Letterman, they don’t sound remotely remorseful except, perhaps, for Bush.

Today, Bush said, rather melodramatically, “This has been the closest thing to death without dying.” Who knows? If his NFL football career fizzles maybe he could get a gig on a soap opera? In the meantime, at Trojan town, the Beemers continue to circle.

If he isn’t celebrating or mourning the results of the Lakers-Celtics finals, Jack can be reached at jackneworth@yahoo.com.

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