Marshall Column: A Strange Situation

Phillip Marshall writes about recent news reports concerning football recruiting.

Two issues have dominated conversation among Auburn and Alabama folks the past few days.

One is a Mobile County Schools investigation into supposed grade changes for two football players at different Mobile high schools who signed with Auburn last February. The other is whether Alabama coach Nick Saban had improper contact with prospects in Miami.

Don't blame The Mobile Register for the story on the grade-changing controversy. As reporters, we are used sometimes. When someone calls with a tip, that person is usually doing it because he or she has an agenda. Often, we know we are being used, but that doesn't mean a story shouldn't be written.

The Register was handed a story, looked into it, decided it was newsworthy and ran with it. There was nothing unethical or even improper about it. I might have taken a different approach than the two reporters took. I'm sure they would take different approaches than I have taken in a lot of my stories.

But the whole situation is a bit strange.

Why would Mobile schools superintendent Harold Dodge talk so openly about an ongoing investigation in which no conclusion has been reached that there was even any wrongdoing? When "officials close to the situation" said both students in question had football scholarships to Auburn, they might as well have named them. And that raises questions about the privacy that is the right of students, even football players.

Was the story leaked in an effort to embarrass Auburn? Maybe, but maybe not. There is no way to know at this point.

The question of most interest to most people is what impact all this could have on Auburn. Beyond eligibility of the players (Ryan Williams and Nick Fairley) in question, there is not a shred of evidence that it will have any impact at all on Auburn.

My guess--and it's only a guess--is that this all came to light when transcripts were submitted to the NCAA Eligibility Clearinghouse. It should be noted that the clearinghouse does not conduct investigations as such. What will typically happen in a case such as this--and there are dozens of them every year--is that the difference in transcripts will raise questions and those questions will be forwarded to the school system. The clearinghouse will simply want to know how the grades came to be changed. If it is satisfied with the answer, it'll count the grades toward eligibility. If it's not, it won't. That's as far as the clearinghouse goes.

It defies logic to believe Auburn had anything to do with changing grades in the Mobile County Schools computer system, especially since it apparently happened long before either player signed or even committed to sign with Auburn.

As for the Saban issue, if he had the conversations that were reported in The Miami Herald, it would appear he broke NCAA rules.

What will it mean? It almost certainly won't mean institutional sanctions, even minor ones, for Alabama. If university compliance officials or the NCAA determine violations took place, the most likely outcome is that Alabama will voluntarily back away or will be barred from recruiting the players in question. It is not certain that such a penalty, especially if it is self-imposed, would even be made public.

I have an uncomfortable feeling that all of this points to even more ugliness in the rivalry in our state. Maybe, considering the stakes and millions of dollars involved, that is inevitable. But it's distressing to those of us who believe all of this is supposed to be about healthy competition and having fun. Instead, it seems to increasingly be about the convoluted idea that somehow a person is made better or worse by the success or lack of success of the college football program he happens to support.

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