So much for the Auburn football program crumbling in the wake of former Sports Illustrated and New York Times writer Selena Roberts’ shocking report—at least for the moment.
For now, all that lingers are questions—and tons of them. As widely covered across the sports landscape, Roberts released an investigative report that detailed rampant disregard by the Tigers program during the Gene Chizik and Tommy Tuberville regimes.
With the help of three former Auburn players, Roberts detailed a lengthy run of malfeasance that includes altering grades prior to the 2011 BCS National Championship Game, paying players to forgo entering the NFL draft early, exceeding the daily NCAA per diem allowance and spending exorbitant sums during recruit visits.
On the surface, the report has all the makings of a program-rocking scandal. It has just about everything that makes the NCAA froth at the mouth—paying players, changing grades, “lack of institutional control,” etc.
Just one problem with the cave falling in on Auburn: Everyone is hopping aboard the denial train—and I mean everyone.
Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer, who was one of the most notable players implicated in the grade-changing fiasco, has categorically denied the allegations. Speaking on behalf of his nephew, Andre Dyer said Thursday that Michael was “never even close” to being academically ineligible, per ESPN’s Joe Schad:
Michael Dyer said be was "never even close" to being academically ineligible prior to BCS Game, per Uncle Andre— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) April 4, 2013
Michael Dyer was kicked off the team for unspecified rule violations in 2012, so it’s not like his bridges are firmly intact with Auburn either.
Also hitting the denial trail are the usual suspects. Chizik categorically refuted the report, saying Roberts was “long on accusation and inference, but short on facts and logic,” per Schad.
He later released an even lengthier statement to Joel Erickson of AL.com, saying he ran the Auburn program with “the highest level of integrity and accountability” while citing an NCAA investigation in 2011 that found no wrongdoing by the program.
Florida Gators head coach and former Tigers defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who was accused of giving former Auburn safety Mike McNeil $400 in 2007, also denied all involvement.
“Totally deny it,” Muschamp said (via The Gainesville Sun’s Robbie Andreu). “I don’t know where this is coming from.”
Those denials were expected. Chizik is just 51 years old and likely wants to continue coaching at a high-level Division I program again. Muschamp holds one of the nation’s most prestigious posts at Florida. Both have a lot to gain by this report going away—and a lot to lose if there’s fire to this smoke.
What came as a massive shock to the public—and as condemnation to the report’s credibility—is the complete denials from players.
Former defensive end Mike Blanc, who was one of the titular sources in Roberts’ story, immediately took to Twitter and called the report “outrageous”:
Man this article is outrageous and isn't true. The media will do anything for a juicy story smh #sad— Mike Blanc (@MikeBlanc93) April 3, 2013
Quoted in the story as having direct knowledge that former Auburn receiver Darvin Adams had been offered “several thousand dollars” to stay at school, Blanc also denied that fact. Speaking with Erickson, Blanc said he heard rumors about Adams but had no direct knowledge of any wrongdoing.
Yeah. Me, personally, I don't have any direct knowledge of it. You just hear stuff. I'm pretty sure other guys on the team that know more, like guys that were closer to Darvin and these other players I know. Darvin probably would have told those guys. I know Mike and Darvin were really cool. Maybe Darvin could have shared some information with Mike. But, me, personally, I don't know nothing factual that any guys got any money.
The Mike that Blanc is referring to is Mike McNeil, who also reportedly had knowledge of Adams’ financial offer.
Neiko Thorpe and Antoine Carter, both quoted in the story, also took to Twitter to accuse Roberts of changing words and stories in her report:
While I spoke to Selena Roberts about Mike I have just read her article & not only am I misquoted but my words are very out of (1/2)— Neiko Thorpe (@Neiko15) April 4, 2013
context. We didn't talk about NCAA violations or recruiting. I'm proud 2 have played at Auburn & the opportunities it gave me (2/2)— Neiko Thorpe (@Neiko15) April 4, 2013
Please dont remix my words— Antoine Carter (@AC45AU) April 4, 2013
With everyone rushing to refute her story, Roberts went on the defensive. She spoke with Brandon Marcello of AL.com on Thursday, backing up her story’s validity and claiming that the players who are backtracking are doing so out of pressure brought on by national attention.
All of this back-and-forth through the media leaves just one question about this investigation: What in the blue blazes is going on? On one side, Roberts is understandably sticking to her side of things, while the players quoted on-record continue to call her credibility into question.
In short, someone is lying—and doing so with a bold face. Who is lying is something we may not know for a very long time.
Roberts could have misheard or misrepresented what the players are saying. It happens in journalism, and there have been plenty of cases of half-baked reports unfairly criticizing or condemning players and organizations in the past. Roberts is not known for fabrication, and her body of work at Sports Illustrated and the New York Times speaks volumes for her credibility.
But mistakes and deceit happen—even with respected people.
It’s also possible that these young men read the report and understandably backed away publicly from statements they made privately. Social media is a helluva lubricant for vicious threats, and it’s possible these players barricaded themselves behind a wall of plausible deniability while the proverbial Home Depot still had supplies. Football is seen as a family, and turncoats are about as welcomed back to their former household as Frank Gallagher.
Jumbled all together in a pretty package, and we have a story that needs time to develop. More facts need to come out, and perhaps a formal investigation from the NCAA will be the only thing that can provide concrete answers.
That means keeping the jury hung in the court of public opinion. Until hard evidence comes to light, no one involved is guilty of anything. Not Auburn, not Roberts, not the players and not the coaches.
Still, until there are answers, all remain very much under the white-hot spotlight of suspicion.