Former SI and New York Times columnist Selena Roberts published a story on Roopstigo, linking the pending case against former Auburn safety Mike McNeil to the school’s corrupt football culture. Divorcing Roberts’ past from the story is hard. Her A-Rod PED reporting raised some heckles. So did her columns on the Duke Lacrosse case which, with hindsight, were inaccurate, following what the New York Times’ sports editor termed “a rogue prosecutor.” But a vacuum is probably the fairest way to proceed here.
Roberts presents some ambiguities in the robbery case against McNeil. That story is interesting. What concerns the sports media, though, is where she ties in Auburn football. Roberts argues McNeil was made a scapegoat to protect a program, which she describes as “going off the rails.”
What motive would Auburn have to interfere? In the months leading up to the robbery, Auburn had been dealing with behavioral issues involving players. Allegations that then-quarterback Cam Newton was part of a pay-to-play scheme further fueled the image of a rogue school lacking discipline. “Maybe there is a fear in Auburn’s mind that Michael knows too much,” says Clifton. “Their fear is that Michael will expose the family secret. It’s a way to silence him.”
We need to whittle this down to concrete allegations. There are vague assertions that Gene Chizik did not like dreadlocks (McNeil had them). Multiple players believe there was a double standard against black players regarding police treatment and drug testing. This coincides with some other developments during Chizik’s tenure at Auburn. There’s smoke but nothing solid.
Several players claim they were misquoted or taken out of context. We also have players saying (or confirming) they “heard” things. Multiple players having heard the same thing corroborates little beyond a rumor being out there.
The direct allegations about Auburn we get come from McNeil and former receiver Darvin Adams. McNeil says an athletic department counselor at Auburn helped him change a grade from an F to a C to stay eligible.
“I had B work but I missed too many classes; and I went to the instructor and said, ‘I really need this grade,’” says McNeil. “He said that he was sorry but he wouldn’t change it. I went to the person over him. She was in a position of power and backed up the instructor. I then told my counselor with the athletic department.” Within days, McNeil says, the grade was changed from an F to a C and he did not miss a game.
Adams says he was offered financial inducements to stay at Auburn instead of turning pro.
McNeil and Blanc say Auburn coaches offered Adams several thousand dollars to stay for his senior year. “It was sugar-coated in a way,” says Adams, who confirmed he was offered financial incentives, but declined to detail the exact amount. “It was like, we’ll do this and that for you. But I’d rather do things the right way. I am happy I didn’t say yes to that stuff. That’s what I’d tell kids.”
McNeil alleges that then-defensive coordinator and now Florida head coach Will Muschamp paid him $400 in cash out of a drawer in 2007. (Muschamp denies it.)
McNeil recalls having a difficult day at practice in 2007 and then-defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, calling him into his office. “I had no clue what it was about because I’d never directly asked him for anything,” says McNeil. “He slid about $400 over to me. He went into a drawer and gave me money and said, ‘Is this enough? Is this good?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’” Muschamp, now the head football coach at the University of Florida, denied the payment through a spokesperson.
McNeil also claims he was allowed well above the NCAA-permitted $50 allowance to entertain recruits.
The NCAA allows less than $50 a day to be spent by student-athlete recruiters on visiting prospects but McNeil recalls coaches giving him $500 to entertain blue-chip player Dre Kirkpatrick, one of the top prep players in the country in 2008.
Taking the allegations in order … It’s not clear what happened with McNeil’s grade. Many college courses have an automatic fail provision if you miss a certain number of classes. McNeil cites that as the reason he failed. That’s a typical dispute. The grade was changed. We don’t know if that’s outright fraud a la North Carolina or Auburn’s athletic department pressured the academic department to take the other side in a dispute. It’s not a good look, but that incident alone doesn’t buttress charges of widespread academic malfeasance.
It’s hard to credit Adams’ assertion since it is so vague. He doesn’t say who offered him something or what precisely he was offered. It’s not clear from the story where others heard the “several thousand dollars” figure from. McNeil’s specific allegation about Muschamp giving him $400 is interesting, especially considering Auburn’s rich history of informal “pay-for-play” arrangements. That said, there is no paper trail and that may be impossible to verify.
The recruiting violations? A top football recruit can be worth tens of millions to a university. The $50 rule itself is laughable, as are any expectations that is being followed by major college football programs.
Auburn football culture might be “off the rails.” But Roberts’ report, when parsed down to the substantiated allegations, presents little direct evidence. Dismissing the shadows entirely would be naive, but the report still leaves us where we were with Auburn’s 2010 title team. There are loose ends and starting points for NCAA inquiries. The organization, judging by and in the wake of the Miami fiasco, unable to pursue them with any efficacy.
College athletics may be a cesspool but, from a broad ethical perspective, a player being given a small amount of cash is hardly the most relevant portion of that. The NCAA is trying to get member institutions to introduce a stipend worth five times that legally. SEC coaches were willing to provide $300 per player per game out of their own salaries.
Roberts’ report provides more kindling, but it’s no more damning to Auburn than those already in the public domain. Unless the infamous “bag man” for Cam Newton comes forward in her promised part two, don’t expect the fire to start.
[Photo via Getty]