Will The D.J. Fluker Accusations Impact Alabama?
By Brett Beaird
Crimson Tide fans are still giddy about No. 1 Alabama's thrilling 49-42 win over No. 10 Texas A&M in College Station.
The victory against the Aggies is the first of several major milestones on the Tide’s schedule in the chase for the first back-to-back-to-back championships since Minnesota was credited with consecutive titles from 1934-36. The win also provided a soothing tonic for last week’s Yahoo! Sports story by Rand Getlin and Charles Robinson about former Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, who allegedly received impermissible benefits from agents and runner Luther Davis, a former Alabama defensive end who played for the Tide from 2007-10.
The Robinson story alleges four former players (Fluker, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, Mississippi State defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Chad Bumphis), and one current player (Tennessee defensive end Maurice Couch) received extra benefits prior to completing their college careers. Coach Butch Jones held Couch out of last week’s 59-14 loss to No. 2 Oregon. Fluker, Bray and Cox are currently playing on NFL rosters. The Miami Dolphins recently released Bumphis.
A collage of financial and text message records belonging to Davis revealed the players' identities. The records were turned over to Yahoo! Sports by a source with ties to the NFL agent community who alleged that Davis was acting as an intermediary between several high-profile college football players and multiple NFL agents and financial advisers.
The Yahoo! Sports staff has been able to trace a “paper trail” of text message records, bank statements, flight receipts, Western Union fund transfers and other financial material linking both Davis and the five college football players. Yahoo! Sports also found that three NFL agents (Andy Simms, Peter Schaffer and John Phillips) and three financial advisers (Jason Jernigan, Mike Rowan and Hodge Brahmbhatt) engaged Davis in transactions totaling $45,550.
The burden of proof falls on the NCAA to show a “lack of institutional control.” The Yahoo report does not accuse University of Alabama officials of knowing Fluker took money or being connected to the agents or financial advisers in any way.
Alabama athletic director Bill Battle released a statement following the Yahoo! Sports article.
“We have been aware of some of the allegations in today’s story,” Battle said. ”And our compliance department was looking into this situation prior to being notified that this story was actually going to be published. Our review is ongoing. We diligently educate our student-athletes on maintaining compliance with NCAA rules, and will continue to do so.”
Why did Yahoo Sports release the story in mid-September?
Contrary to many Alabama conspiracy theorists, the story was not released to provide a major distraction for Alabama in preparation of the Texas A&M game. The more logical reason was to combat the weeks’ worth of national headlines that major competitor SI.com had garnered with a grueling, detailed expose on the Oklahoma State football program.
“The Dirty Game,” a Sports Illustrated special investigative report provided an expose on the transformation of Oklahoma State football from a struggling college football program into a national powerhouse under coaches Les Miles and Mike Gundy. The five-part series on academics, recruiting, drug usage and sex was the result of a comprehensive 10-month investigation into the Cowboys football program. It includes independent and on-the-record interviews with more than 60 former Cowboys football players from 1999 to 2011, as well as current and former Cowboys staff and assistant coaches.
Many sports pundits have speculated Yahoo! Sports wanted to grab some headlines away from Sports Illustrated with this investigative piece on SEC athletes receiving alleged impermissible benefits. Most university officials don’t want to open the door and find Robinson standing in the doorway with a tape recorder in his hand. Robinson is considered one of the most respected journalists in sports and is thorough in his research.
Who is D.J. Fluker?
Originally from New Orleans, Fluker and his family fled the city just before Hurricane Katrina roared ashore. His family was forced to move for multiple reasons to Biloxi, Miss., and later Mobile, Ala. Fluker attended McGill-Toolen Catholic High School. At McGill-Toolen, Fluker was a dominating defensive lineman. Family issues forced Fluker back to Biloxi for his junior year, where he remained at defensive tackle.
Prior to his senior year, Fluker moved again, this time to Foley, Ala. At Foley High School, head coach Todd Watson convinced Fluker to play on the offensive line to reach his full potential. He earned high school All-American honors from USA Today, Parade, EA Sports, and SuperPrep. Considered a five-star recruit by Rivals.com, Fluker ranked first among offensive tackle prospects in the nation. Despite growing up an LSU fan, Fluker committed to Alabama.
Fluker is one of the classic success stories of an athlete going through the transformation stage of the Nick Saban “process." Michael Gehlken, journalist for the San Diego Union Tribune, detailed the fight through poverty and domestic issues of Fluker's family in a recent article. Fluker’s family was poor. He often slept in the family car and didn’t sleep alone in a bed until he was 15 years old. As a freshman, he could barely get through a typical Saban practice. However, through hard work and dedication, he ended his Alabama career with another BCS championship ring and the Chargers selected him with the 11th overall pick in April's draft.
Who is Luther Davis?
According to Andrew Gribble, Alabama beat writer for AL.com, Davis was a four-star prospect from West Monroe, La., whom Rivals.com considered to be the 15th-best defensive tackle in the nation. At the 2007 U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio, Texas, he announced his commitment to LSU. That announcement would begin an intense recruiting battle with LSU’s Les Miles and Alabama’s Nick Saban. A few days later, Davis visited Alabama to the dismay of Miles. The Tigers reportedly rescinded their offer and Davis ultimately signed with Alabama.
His stats at Alabama during his four-year career were not impressive. Davis saw the field in all but one game during his final three years at Alabama. He started four games during a senior season in which he finished with a career-high 21 tackles. His last appearance in a game for Alabama was during the 2011 Capital One Bowl. Davis had three tackles, one for a loss, in Alabama’s 49-7 rout of Michigan State.
Now, nearly three years later, Davis is accused of funneling money and other improper benefits to Fluker and four other current and former SEC players. In an email to Brahmbhatt, Davis listed $33,755 in expenditures under the subject line "D.J. Fluker invoice," according to Yahoo Sports.
How is this case different from former Alabama NCAA Infraction cases?
Avid Alabama fans would like to erase the memory of the two well-known NCAA infraction cases involving Alabama defensive back Antonio Langham and defensive tackle Albert Means.
Langham signed with a sports agent Jan. 2, 1993, the morning after the Crimson Tide won the national championship by beating Miami, 34-13, in the Sugar Bowl. Langham decided against going pro before his senior season and informed Alabama head coach Gene Stallings. The NCAA said if Alabama had acted more aggressively to report what Langham had done, the NCAA Infractions Committee would not have imposed such severe sanctions.
The NCAA Committee on Infractions took away 26 scholarships and put Alabama on three years' probation in 1995 (later reduced to 17 scholarships and two years of probation) and forced Alabama to forfeit 11 games in 1993. The committee used the term "distressing failure" in its report to describe the action of Alabama athletic director Cecil “Hootie” Ingram, Stallings and others in their investigation of Langham.
The Means case still sends cold chills down the backs of many Alabama supporters. The sanctions Alabama received from the Logan Young/Albert Means case in 2001 came about because Young, an Alabama booster, paid Means’ high school coach Lynn Lang a reported $150,000 to persuade Means to sign with the Crimson Tide.
In the days before the NCAA announced its verdict, faculty athletic representative Gene Marsh, a member of the Committee on Infractions who had recused himself from the case, told athletic department officials that Alabama had little reason to be concerned with the impending sanctions announcement. The football team might lose a scholarship or two, but there wouldn't be any bowl sanctions. Unfortunately, Marsh was badly mistaken.
In a stunning announcement carried live by the majority of the TV and radio stations in Alabama, the NCAA stripped Alabama of 21 scholarships, added a two-year bowl sanction and put the football program on five years' probation. NCAA Enforcement staff member Thomas Yeager described the university as "looking down a gun barrel" at the death penalty.
Coach Dennis Franchione, who had been at Alabama for little more than a year, said he felt blindsided. The tangible loss of scholarships took its toll on the football program for the next five years and Franchione only stayed one more season.
The latest NCAA infraction case happened in 2006-07 with “textbook gate." The NCAA Committee on Infractions announced in June of 2009 no scholarship reductions on the football team or any of the university's other 15 teams that had 201 players obtain free textbooks for their friends. The committee ordered Alabama to vacate 21 victories in football and one in tennis. The university was fined $43,900, the cost of the free textbooks distributed. When the textbook scheme was brought to light in the middle of the 2007 Crimson Tide football season, five players were suspended for four games due to their participation. A total of 201 student athletes from 16 sports including football were involved and the total value of the improper benefits was $40,000. The committee found that 22 of the athletes receiving almost $22,000 in benefits who were aware they were impermissible.
How is the Fluker case different from recent NCAA cases involving USC and Ohio State vacating wins and stripping titles?
USC and Ohio State were forced by the NCAA Enforcement committee to vacate wins and scholarships and received bowl bans. The Trojans and Buckeyes reportedly covered up the impermissible benefits to athletes. That is the primary reason the NCAA verdicts were harsh. The NCAA stripped USC of its 2004 BCS title as the Trojans became the first and only school ever to have to vacate a national championship. The Associated Press decided not to strip them of their AP title that same year.
The NCAA suspended Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four teammates for the first five games of the 2011 season for selling championship rings, jerseys and awards. They also received improper benefits for two years from the owner of a tattoo parlor. Former head coach Jim Tressel eventually resigned in May 2011 once emails revealed he covered up the scandal and did not inform the Ohio State compliance staff.
Investigations by both USC compliance staff and the NCAA discovered former USC running back Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo had accepted gifts from agents. Bush later voluntary gave up his 2005 Heisman Trophy.
As a result of sanctions issued by both USC and the NCAA, the Trojans athletic program received some of the harshest penalties ever handed out to a Division I program. The football team was forced to vacate the final two wins of its 2004 national championship season, as well as all of its wins during the 2005 season. The NCAA also banned USC from bowl games in both 2010 and 2011 and stripped 30 scholarships over three years.
How are the Fluker accusations different from Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton accusations?
Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M was suspended for the first half of the Aggies opening game against Rice. The NCAA statement said there was no evidence that Manziel received payment for signing autographs. The NCAA and A&M officials agreed on the one-half suspension because Manziel violated NCAA bylaw 184.108.40.206, an NCAA representative confirmed. The rule says student-athletes cannot permit their names or likenesses to be used for commercial purposes, including to advertise, recommend or promote sales of commercial products, or accept payment for the use of their names or likenesses.
ESPN reported that the NCAA was looking into whether Manziel was paid for signing autographs at several locations, including in South Florida around the BCS title game with Alabama and Notre Dame. ESPN reported that a set of autograph dealers claimed that Manziel accepted payments to sign more than 4,000 items, including footballs and photographs, at an event in Connecticut in late January.
In other words, the NCAA couldn't prove Manziel was paid, but it could prove he knew his autographs would be sold. Thus the half-game suspension was a compromise that Texas A&M officials accepted.
In October of 2011, the NCAA announced its findings of no major violations committed by Auburn regarding former quarterback Cam Newton or other pay-for-play allegations as it concluded multiple investigations of the football program. The NCAA and the SEC agreed with Auburn's self-report from Nov. 30, 2010, that Cecil Newton and the owner of a scouting service, Kenny Rogers, shopped Cam Newton's services to Mississippi State out of junior college for as much as $180,000. However, the NCAA agreed there was never a paper trail or no evidence the player or Auburn University officials knew Cecil Newton was shopping his son.
Newton led the Tigers to a national title and was the No. 1 NFL draft pick by the Carolina Panthers. The final months of his spectacular season were clouded by the allegations, though. Auburn declared Newton ineligible four days before the SEC Championship game, and the NCAA reinstated him the following day, saying there was not "sufficient evidence" that Cam Newton or Auburn knew of the attempts to cash in on his talent.
What will be the outcome of the D.J. Fluker investigation and the NCAA amateur model?
All of the well-known NCAA cases chronicled here and in other recent articles once again show the eroding NCAA amateur athlete model. NCAA Division I College Football is big business. The Top 25 sports programs in the nation make millions of dollars each year. Conference commissioners such as the SEC’s Mike Slive and the ACC’s John Swofford have repeated at their summer conference media days it’s time to give the athletes who generate the money “a piece of the pie." Whether through “cost of attendance” scholarships or invoking the International Olympic model, athletes such as Johnny Manziel and D.J. Fluker should be allowed to reap some of the benefits, even if the money is put in a trust fund until they graduate or leave early to go to the NFL.
Another respected columnist from Yahoo! Sports, Dan Wetzel, also commented on the Fluker accusations shortly after the Robinson and Getlin report came out.
Here is the early prediction on what will come — at least in terms of NCAA sanctions — from the Yahoo! Sports story detailing how Luther Davis went from starting Alabama defensive end to middle man possibly funneling money from agents and financial planners to a handful of top SEC players, including some in Tuscaloosa. Nothing. Or, at least, not much.
The NCAA won't be able to get enough people to talk. They won't be able to access the paper trail. It's possible they won't even muster much of an effort. There isn't a direct tie to the coaching staffs. The schools involved, Alabama, Mississippi State and Tennessee, will solemnly declare their concern, even though the latter two are already on probation for previous things that produced solemn concern. Maybe Volunteers defensive lineman Maurice Couch, the only still-eligible participant, gets hit a little, but that'll be it.
There is no question that Alabama fans and officials should take the allegations against Fluker seriously. However, the NCAA has changed dramatically in the last two years. The NCAA investigation into Miami booster Nevin Shapiro still has not reached a conclusion after three years. The recent Oregon NCAA announcement pertaining to Willie Lyles being paid $25,000 for “recruiting services” stretched for two years and resulted in a “slap on the wrist” for the Ducks.
Robinson appears to have a “paper trail” of detailed records and documents tying the players to the accusations. Will NCAA investigative committee members get Davis to talk? Will the investigation uncover any new findings? Only time will tell.