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New Auburn Report Raises Many Questions, Answers Few

It's a lot to take in, and it starts to fray at the edges under close examination.

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Kevin C. Cox

The big exposé yesterday about Mike McNeil and the Auburn football program raises lots of questions.

Where did this come from?

One of the first things you probably thought when you first clicked the story link is: huh? What in the world is Roopstigo?

It is a new-ish sports website founded by Selena Roberts, and she is the one who wrote the story. She has a couple of decades of journalism to her name, with places like the New York Times and Sports Illustrated in her background. Back in 2009, she broke the news of Alex Rodriguez's 2003 positive steroid test.

The site itself is less than a year old, with the domain having been registered on April 28 of last year. Its Twitter account is even newer, with it going live on May 27, 2012. It doesn't appear to be a big time operation with investors, as CrunchBase has no record of it.

What out of this is true?

I don't know. You don't know. Possibly no one person knows for sure. A court hasn't vetted any of the new claims, and it likely won't on most of them.

Any time I address a claim, I will try to affix an "alleged" or "if true" disclaimer on it. If I miss one here or there, please put one there mentally. I make no assumptions regarding the truth of anything in that article that isn't already verified.

Do we have to care about the NCAA violations stuff?

Apparently yes, given that most of the coverage has centered on them. However, they're really a secondary part of this whole story.

The most serious of them is the talk of grade fixing to keep players eligible. Universities exist for the purpose of academics, so any time they take a back seat to athletics, it's a really bad deal. It's also fairly common, unfortunately. UNC is going through an academic scandal right now, and FSU went through one a few years ago. It's also something that pops up at Auburn from time to time. I can tell you that there were lots, and I mean lots, of rumors out there in December of 2010 regarding AU players being academically ineligible for the BCS title game, but no one missed it due to grades. Rumors are just rumors, of course, but McNeil's allegations in that respect did not catch me off guard.

Next on the list would be the charge of offering thousands of dollars to Darvin Adams to stay in school an extra year. Roberts reports that Adams said he was offered money to stay, but he didn't specify how much has yet to comment since the piece came out. I don't know how he would go about proving the claim if he doesn't have a paper trail.

After that are some from the Tommy Tuberville era that I can't imagine are provable. One is that McNeil claims Will Muschamp gave him $400 in 2007, and the other is that he got 10 times the allowed amount of money to entertain Dre Kirkpatrick on the latter's recruiting visit. These would be cash transactions from two coaching staffs ago. If any evidence ever did exist of them, it's long gone. Muschamp, for his part, issued a denial.

Will anything come of these allegations of NCAA violations?

It depends.

Do you remember the so-called HBO 4? You know, the four former Auburn players who went on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and said they got paid to play? Actually, you probably don't. They chose not to talk to the NCAA, so the matter ended right there. If McNeil and others don't talk with investigators, then this will fade away just like the HBO special did.

Besides, after the way the NCAA has totally botched the Miami investigation, would anyone accept any conclusion the investigators come up with?

What are the biggest issues here?

The biggest of all in my eyes is what Antoine Carter (who has since declined to comment on the article, though he did tweet a seeming denial of some sorts) and McNeil allege regarding institutional racism under Gene Chizik.

They describe a situation where Chizik looked unkindly upon players with tattoos and dreadlocks. Carter said such players had to cut their hair [note: the picture on this post shows McNeil with uncut dreads] and had to take more drug tests than the others. The two of them also describe what they considered to be harassment by the local police, with Carter suggesting that the police did it to keep tabs on players at the coaches' request. Auburn police chief Tommy Dean denied being involved in any such scheme. Mike Blanc is another player quoted regarding Chizik not liking players with tattoos and dreads, but he now says Roberts misrepresented what he said.

If the police were taking orders from coaches, that would be an incredibly bad thing. It would totally undermine the trust in them. Even if they weren't, these still are allegations of profiling. Again, that would be terrible if true. Operative words: if true.

Further, if Chizik really did have a problem with tattoos and dreadlocks and acted on that aversion, I don't know how he could ever be employed again. It also raises the question of, if something like that was going on, how far it went among the other coaches. As you know, a pretty prominent member of Chizik's old staff is now the head coach.

Beyond that, McNeil's family described pretty shabby treatment by Auburn on the day of McNeil's arrest. You'll have to just read it if you haven't already. Nothing they allege is illegal, but it lacks decency. If they're telling the truth and not embellishing, they're right to be upset.

What's the motivation?

This is a big, big question.

McNeil and his family clearly have an ax to grind against the university for what they consider to be poor treatment following the arrest. I suppose they're looking to take their case to the court of public opinion before going into the court of law. I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know what if anything they can get out of this, but that appears to be the strategy.

I don't know why any of the other former players chose to talk about anything other than McNeil's situation. That I don't get. Three of them—Blanc, Neiko Thorpe, and Daren Bates—have claimed some sort of journalistic malfeasance has gone on, ranging from quotes taken out of context to quotes either misattributed or fabricated. Roberts stands by her reporting. In any event, they all would have reason to deny their statements now that it looks like they attacked their former school.

Roberts, because we apparently have to go there, is an Auburn graduate, so there's no rival school conspiracy theory to be had here. I've seen some folks suggest that she's looking to use this story to launch her site to prominence, and certainly it has done so, but this isn't a story that's launching the site because it's not brand new. While fabricated quotes are sadly not unheard of these days, she would not have a motivation to do invent statements here. She has a relatively new business with this site, and making up quotes for a very visible piece would certainly sink both it and her career. Could she have tried to make things sound scandalous? Sure, and I'd go so far as to say that it appears she did just that. But I seriously doubt she would totally make something up.

Where do we go from here?

This much we do know: McNeil has his day in court next week, provided his last-minute lawyer switch doesn't delay things. That will cover the criminal portions of the story.

As to the rest, it's hard to say. Three of the six players quoted have disputed some amount of the report's content. Two others won't talk directly about it just yet, while the main source has credibility issues thanks to his animus towards Auburn. If no one besides McNeil is willing to discuss things with the NCAA, then this will go the way of the HBO 4 allegations: nowhere.

In any event, McNeil now makes at least five former players willing to accuse Auburn of improper behavior in the past two years. That fact has to be disconcerting, considering no other program has a problem like this one. He also makes five players to make accusations without any apparent proof. He's certainly a step above message board rumors, but we have nothing to substantiate his claims as of yet.

I don't suppose this will go away soon, what with it being the offseason and basketball ending soon. Now that Roberts' story is out, we'll see if any other investigative reporters can dig up anything on the matter (and you know they're already digging). I personally don't anticipate much to come from this in the end, but I've been wrong before.