AU 'Tainted Title' article: Many accusations, less facts

AU 'Tainted Title' article: Many accusations, less facts

Selena Roberts' story on Auburn put her new website at the center of attention.

Selena Roberts’ story on Auburn put her new website at the center of attention.

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ooking for a primer on how to get attention and traffic to a website? Whether it was intentional or not, Selena Roberts has a pretty good blueprint.

Take a big-time college football program — even better, an SEC school and head coach of another — add drugs, guns, stolen money, alleged cash payments to players and promises of payments to others. Toss in allegations of academic fraud for good measure, and viola.

Thanks to Roberts’ exposé Auburn’s Tainted Title | Victims, Violations and Vendettas for Glory, and fueled by salacious headlines from ESPN and another media outlets, Roopstigo.com has gone from a virtually unknown blog to the center of attention in the college sports world overnight.

WorthofWeb.com, a site that uses historical traffic statistics to estimate the value of websites, says that Roopstigo is worth approximately $4,282. (ESPN.com, by comparison, is estimated at $997 million.) It estimates the site receives an average of 966 visits per day.

Roopstigo’s numbers are certain to go up after the feeding frenzy that has ensued. (Roopstigo, which was launched last October, claimed in a recent press release that it “accumulated over 103,000 unique visitors” during its first month.)

In Auburn, no stranger to scandal especially of late, she’s found a particularly good whipping boy. There’s undoubtedly some in the media who, left with egg on their face when the school was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Cam Newton sago, would love nothing more than a measure of vindication.

To her credit, Roberts, a former writer for the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, has broken some blockbuster stories. In 2009, she scooped the news that Alex Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids, and landed herself a book deal.

She’s also found herself under fire, most notably for the way her NYT columns portrayed the Duke Lacrosse scandal, her subsequent refusal to apologize to the falsely-accused Duke players, and, later, for questions surrounding her sourcing in the A-Rod book.

‘Tainted Title’ has put Roberts, an Auburn alum, back in the spotlight, but it’s not the first time that she’s been critical of her alma mater. In 2005, she wrote a column questioning former AU trustee Bobby Lowder and his relationship to the football program, including the team’s FCA director Chette Williams.

Ostensibly, Roberts’ latest piece is the story of Mike McNeil, a former Auburn defensive back who will soon stand trial for felony armed robbery. If convicted, McNeil faces 21 years to life in prison.

She chronicles McNeil’s journey, beginning with the arrest and his family’s search for information, and meanders her way to the present, along the way attempting to shed light on what she calls “a culture seemingly unhinged from institutional control.”

In reality, many of the article’s claims come off as questionable, both in terms of their relevance to the story at hand and to the credence of the claims themselves.

Roberts says that she interviewed more than a dozen players from the Tigers’ BCS title team, but five were quoted with controversial claims. Three of the five have since said they were either misquoted, taken out of context or misrepresented by others interviewed. Of the other two, one (former wide receiver Darvin Adams) would not provide specifics and the other begins trial for felony armed robbery next week.

For her part, Roberts is standing by her story, telling Al.com’s Brandon Marcello, “…I think it’s very difficult to take a strong stance and to tell the truth and then to have to deal with the consequences in a place where I think the story even shows that there is a great deal of pressure to keep what’s in-house, in-house.”

Here’s a closer look at a few of the more curious allegations:

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.’”

Earlier in the article, Roberts points out that McNeil “was reared in a two-story brick home in the suburbs of Mobile” and, referring to McNeil’s alleged involvement with the robbery, his former attorney Ben Hand stated, “Mike didn’t need money.”

Why, then, risk your eligibility to take “about $400″ from one of your coaches? Obviously, accepting money from an assistant coach is different than taking part in a robbery, but it seems strange that someone who had no need for money would put a future NFL career in jeopardy to accept what, by McNeil’s own account, was a random cash payoff.

What’s even more bizarre is the idea of Muschamp, one of the toughest, most passionate coaches in college football, responding to a player having a “difficult day” at practice by slipping him cash? The thought of that occurring would strike any coach as ridiculous, especially one as fiery as Muschamp.

Three players say that before the BCS Championship game the team was told that as many as nine of their teammates would not be able to play in the title game because they were academically ineligible. “We thought we would be without Mike Dyer because he said he was one of them, but Auburn found a way to make those dudes eligible,” says Mike Blanc, a teammate and roommate of Mike McNeil’s.

Not only has Blanc since denied making this quote, but since when is team gossip taken for fact? There was speculation around the time that some players may be in jeopardy academically, but Blanc — who supposedly referred to the group as “those dudes” — was one of the players in question. (Dyer wasn’t.)

Players say Chizik asked them to cut their dreadlocks, part of an ongoing culture war within the program – and outside of it. Players describe police as part of the program of surveillance. “We were targeted by police,” says Antoine Carter, Auburn’s former star defensive end. “You’d get harassed. They would pull you over for nothing as a way to keep track of you.” McNeil remembers turning right on red, a legal move, but finding police lights behind him. He says police drew their guns on him over a traffic stop.

Gene Chizik didn’t like dreadlocks. Okay. It’s difficult to see what connection, if any, this has to McNeil’s story.

It apparently never affected his playing time — McNeil was, by his own account, a major contributor on the national championship team with an NFL future. (It’s also interesting to note that assistant coach Trooper Taylor filed a Federal lawsuit against Auburn City Schools over his son’s right to wear his hair in cornrows while playing for the Auburn High basketball team.)

If McNeil is to be believed, the Auburn Police Department didn’t like dreadlocks, either. This, obviously, is far more relevant to his story, but, it’s an uncorroborated account from a guy facing felony armed robbery charges.

Receiver Darvin Adams, a star player with NFL dreams and a family to support, wrestled with whether to turn pro after the championship season. He discussed his plans with teammates and told them how much pressure he was under by Auburn coaches to stay. 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.” Adams turned pro but went undrafted, a result, one NFL scout says, was due to negative reports on him from Auburn coaches.

An NFL scout we talked to this morning maintains that Adams went undrafted because of his physical tools not because of any negative reports from Auburn. Though he was a very productive college player, Adams was just over 6-2 with a 4.56 40-yard dash time (and was timed as slow as 4.66).

The scout said he was considered at best a late a round round draft pick before he made his decision to leave school and that it came as “no surprise” when he went undrafted. Adams signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Carolina Panthers and spent a year on the team’s practice squad before being released. He now plays for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.

It’s somewhat hard to believe that Auburn, or any other school, would offer money or other incentives to a player considered a late round or UFA prospect (especially considered that Adams was redshirted a few years earlier), but this is at least more plausible than many of the article’s other claims. Still, Adams’ account was loose at best, and there was no corroborating evidence or quotes presented.

The 2010 championship team had only two first-round picks (Cam Newton and Nick Fairley) and two players go in the later rounds that year. By contrast, past title winners such as Alabama and Texas have watched as many as a dozen go in the draft. “The difference,” says one NFL scout, “is what you hear about players.” Carter wonders if his positive drug test from Auburn’s internal testing has obstructed his NFL path. “The coaches had a lot of say-so with scouts,” says Carter. “Chizik didn’t like anyone who didn’t fit a certain image.”

Those supposed reports didn’t hurt Newton, who was the No. 1 overall pick, or Fairley, also a first-round selection.

According to the scout we spoke to, the number of draft picks on AU’s national title team had much more to do with the makeup of the team — a Heisman Trophy winner at the most important position on offense, arguably the best defensive player in the country playing defensive tackle, and several productive college players but who never were considered NFL-type physical talents — than negative reports from Auburn coaches or rumors of player misconduct. He said that both Alabama and Texas were stocked with far more NFL talent than Auburn during their respective title runs.

The results on the field back that up. Auburn went 8-5 the year before and the year after its national title. Meanwhile, Alabama has won three out of the last four national championships and finished 10-3 and No. 4 in the country in the season it didn’t win the title (2010). Texas went 10-3 with a freshman Colt McCoy at quarterback the year after its national title.

Also, Lee Ziemba, an offensive lineman with both long hair and visible tattoos, was one of Auburn’s four draftees from the 2010 team.

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.”

This is an overriding theme to the article, and is, perhaps, the most objectionable of the accusations. Would Auburn officials really help railroad a former player to jail in order to keep them from exposing “the family secret”?

The two specific allegations McNeil made was that he was paid “about $400″ after a bad day at practice by Will Muschamp and that he once had a failing grade in a Computer Science class mysteriously changed from to a C. That hardly seems worthy of helping make sure someone goes to jail in order to keep them quiet.

It’s understandable that McNeil and his family are fearful at the possibility of what seems to be an extreme sentence, but with all the accusations it has faced of late, if Auburn’s plan was to try to have everyone who could expose the “family secret” put behind bars, the school would be funding a new wing at Lee County jail rather than football facility upgrades. (It should be noted that, according to the article, the family has turned down plea deals that would have had a significantly shorter jail sentence.)

Could the McNeil’s situation, as Roberts says, “prove to be a tripwire to imploding a powerful and storied athletic institution”? Judging by this report alone, that seems highly unlikely.

For his part, Chizik released a statement on Thursday that correctly calls Roberts’ article “long on accusation and inference, but short on facts and logic.”

As Chizik points out, the NCAA conducted a multi-year investigation into paying players and alleged recruiting violations at Auburn, conducting more than 80 interviews.

Given that the recent trend has been for the NCAA to be overzealous is its investigation and enforcement practices (just ask Penn State and Miami), it seems odd that they wouldn’t have used the same zeal while they were on the Plains.

Roberts says that she is working on part two of the story, examining Auburn’s “booster culture.” She has “no timeline” for the piece  and says she doesn’t know if it will contain more allegations.

Meanwhile, Roopstigo will continue to cash in on the traffic bonanza.

Photo credit: Mary Altaffer / AP Photo’

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