Auburn, Jacobs dismantle Selena Roberts' 'Tainted Title' article
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Auburn football program came under a media firestorm the first week in April.
Ex-Sports Illustrated and New York Times writer Selena Roberts started the barrage with a salacious piece for her new website, Roopstigo.com, titled “Auburn’s Tainted Title. Victims, Violations and Vendettas for Glory.”
The story was ostensibly an expose on former Auburn defensive back Mike McNeil, who, at the time, was about to stand trial for armed robbery, and the difficulties he’s allegedly fared since the time of his arrest. In reality, it was a thinly-veiled hit piece in which Roberts quoted McNeil and some of his former teammates making allegations of academic fraud, cash payments (and promises of cash payments), racial profiling and more.
Since the words “scandal” and “Auburn” seem to go together like cornbread and turnip greens, the story spread like wildfire first through Twitter and college football message boards, and almost instantly became the story du jour of the national media.
ESPN jumped on the bandwagon a day later with an Auburn scandal report of its own. The article, which was the result of what it says was a six-month investigation, accused the school of covered up players’ failed drug tests for synthetic marijuana.
Auburn’s response to the ESPN report was swift and strong.
Athletic director Jay Jacobs questioned everything from the facts of the report (Auburn cited phone records showing 50 phone calls to parents of the players involved) to its entire premise (the sale of synthetic marijuana was legal in the state of Alabama and it was not a banned substance by the NCAA during the time in question). Documents and phone records obtained through open records requests backed up Auburn’s claims.
Now, Jacobs has issued an open letter to the “Auburn family” offering a point-by-point refutation to what he calls the article’s “numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations.”
Roberts, who happens to be an Auburn graduate, is certainly no stranger to criticism. Her reporting of the Duke Lacrosse scandal for the Times and the A-Rod steroid scandal at SI (and subsequently the sourcing of her book on the subject) has come un harsh scrutiny from both the public and members of the media. She’s likely to catch heat again in light of Jacobs’ response.
Here are some of the highlights (the bolds are ours):
- Roberts quoted three players as saying the team was told before the 2011 BCS Championship game that as many as nine of their teammates would not be able to play in the title game because they were academically ineligible. Roopstigo quoted Mike Blanc as saying, “We thought we would be without Michael Dyer because he was one of them.” Auburn’s response: An internal review by Auburn Athletics and an independent review by Auburn University Internal Auditing found no evidence that improper grade changes occurred. In fact, six players were deemed academically ineligible for the game and did not travel with the team to Arizona. Mike Blanc later Tweeted his reaction to the story: “This article is outrageous and isn’t true. The media will do anything for a juicy story.” Mr. Dyer was never in any jeopardy of being ineligible for the 2011 BCS game. He passed 15 hours during the fall. He only needed 6 to be eligible per NCAA rules. Mr. Dyer actually passed a total of 24 hours through the Summer and Fall semesters in 2010. He had a 2.8 GPA at the end of the Fall semester.
- Mike McNeil is quoted as saying of a computer 1000 class, “I was doing B work, but missed too many classes; and I went to the instructor and said, ‘I really need this grade.” McNeil contends that his academic advisor got the grade changed from an F to a C. Auburn’s response: Mr. McNeil’s grade was changed after documented excused absences, due to medical reasons, were provided to his professor. The professor followed institutional policy in making the change.
- McNeil said coaches gave him $500 to host Dre Kirkpatrick while Dre Kirkpatrick was on an official visit to Auburn. Auburn’s response: Dre Kirkpatrick never attended Auburn on an official visit. After the article was published, Mr. Kirkpatrick publicly stated about his unofficial visit to Auburn, “Nobody gave me any money, and nobody spent any money on me that I know of. I don’t know what they would have spent it on. We went to a party, but nobody was paying to get in there. We just walked in like everybody else seemed to be doing.”
- Roberts wrote that Auburn didn’t contact McNeil’s mother regarding her son’s arrest until 3:30 p.m. on March 11, 2011. Auburn’s response: Phone records show that Athletics Department employees talked with a member of the family three times before 3:30 p.m. and once afterward on March 11, 2011. Calls were made at 9:01 a.m. (3 minutes), 11:34 a.m. (9 minutes), 1:07 p.m. (7 minutes), and 4:45 p.m. (10 minutes).
- McNeil claimed that Auburn blocked his transfer to Livingstone College. Auburn’s response: After his arrest, Mr. McNeil did not properly withdraw from Auburn University, making him academically ineligible to transfer per NCAA rules. Auburn Athletics Compliance and the Office of General Counsel assisted Mr. McNeil in addressing those issues with the NCAA. Those efforts ultimately rendered him eligible to play at Livingstone College.
It’s been obvious since pretty early on that there were some pretty big holes in Roberts’ story. Today’s response from Auburn shows just how big some of those holes really are.
UPDATE (12:30 p.m.): Roberts sent a statement to the Opelika-Auburn News which read:
“I found the response to be self-revealing on Auburn’s part. As I continue to report out a separate story for a later date, I will address some of the issues Auburn raised.”
Grab your popcorn…
Photo credit: Auburn Media Relations / Todd Van Emst