The Mobile Register reported Friday that receipts verifying that former sports writer Wayne Rowe sent money to Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin in 1999 were in the hands of Southeastern Conference investigators. Already, Tennessee has penalized itself two scholarships and admonished head coach Phillip Fulmer for improprieties in Eric Locke's transfer from Alabama to Tennessee. The NCAA has yet to accept those penalties as sufficient, and under the circumstances, probably won't anytime soon.
A full-blown NCAA investigation is a near certainty. Once that starts, no one can predict where it will lead. Nobody at Tennessee is likely to ask me for advice, but I have some anyway. Get rid of the arrogance. Get rid of the denial. Find out what happened, report it and accept the consequences. I also have some advice for other schools in the SEC. Stop celebrating Alabama's penalties and Tennessee's problems. You could be next.
The story from Mobile is a sad one. Tennessee booster Dianne Sanford--and don't think for a second the NCAA won't see her as a booster--apparently gave money to Rowe, who sent it to Martin. Rowe said he understood it was for repairs for Martin's car. When the story broke, Martin denied vehemently ever receiving any money. He hasn't commented on the latest developments.
Rowe lost his job. Now Martin is in danger of having his legacy tarnished by scandal. The quarterback who has a street named for him near Neyland Stadium, who led Tennessee to a national championship, who is a hero at his school and in his hometown, could end up being remembered as much for this sorry mess as for the games he won.
Boosters brought the plague of harsh NCAA sanctions on the Alabama football program. Sanford could do the same for Tennessee. You wonder just what drives these people to do the things they do. What makes a 50ish adult get a charge out of having a "friendship" with a 20-year-old kid who happens to be a great athlete? Why would someone intelligent enough to have become wealthy be dumb enough to endanger the athletic program he or she loves? Why can't they do what they are constantly asked to do and butt out? No recruit, no recruiting class is worth what Alabama has been through.
Athletic directors all over the SEC ask those same questions privately. Publicly, they talk about the booster issue only in the most general of terms. The reason, of course, is that they need the boosters' money. They don't want to insult the people who buy luxury suites, donate money for facilities and the like. When boosters get out of control and get caught, the worst punishment they can receive is to be disassociated from the program. The boosters who brought Alabama down gripe about what happened. But they still have their considerable fortunes and the good life that goes with it.
Meanwhile, barring a successful appeal, a football team full of college kids won't be eligible for a championship or eligible to go to a bowl game. A few years down the road, the Tide will be eligible but might not be good enough because of scholarship sanctions.
The bottom line is that, in any infractions case, the most severe price is usually paid by those who had nothing to do with it and have been accused of nothing. Sadly, there is really nothing else the NCAA can do. It has no power to inflict real punishment on anyone outside of the institution. That's why the rule was passed several years ago that allows players on a team hit with bowl sanctions to leave without having to sit out a year.
As the SEC meetings get under way this week in Destin, the atmosphere is likely to be a bit contentious. Alabama and Kentucky are already in the NCAA jailhouse. Tennessee could be moving rapidly in that direction. Arkansas and LSU have accusations of infractions within their programs. There are well-heeled Alabama supporters who want to bring Tennessee down. Don't doubt it. Fulmer and others at Tennessee wanted to bring Alabama down. Don't doubt that either.
Meanwhile, it's the players who suffer because the old folks can't follow the rules and can't get along.
Sad. Very sad.