The results of an on-going NCAA investigation could alter the landscape of the ACC Coastal Division. Last week, Inside Carolina, the Scout.com site that covers UNC, reported the NCAA had been interviewing Tar Heel football players about possible improper benefits received by top NFL prospects who had returned to school.
Monday, National Football Post reported the NCAA has interviewed defensive tackle Marvin Austin, wide receiver Greg Little, safety Deunta Williams, cornerback Kendric Burney and linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant. According to NFP's Aaron Wilson, Austin could be suspended for the entire 2010 season. A source "with knowledge of the situation" told Wilson, "The next time we see Marvin Austin will be at the NFL scouting combine."
If the report turns out to be accurate (and if other suspensions follow) it will have a big effect on UNC's chances to win the conference this year. It also illustrates a new set of problems facing compliance offices around the country.
The Tar Heels have been a trendy pick to win the division this season, thanks in large part to a stacked defense led by the run-stopping abilities of Austin and Sturdivant. Austin recorded 42 tackles, six for loss, last season and helped stuff the Hokies' run game in UNC's 20-17 win in Blacksburg last season.
Because the Hokies are the Tar Heels' 10th game of the season, any suspension of any UNC player would surely have to be for the whole season to have an impact on that game. However, the Tar Heels' second game of the season is against fellow Coastal contender Georgia Tech.
For the UNC perspective, we turn to Tar Heel Fan, who says Wilson's report isn't exactly breaking any new ground or coming to any conclusions any of us couldn't have made. He also points out that even if Austin may be done in Chapel Hill, this is far from over:
The key point here, as expressed by WRAL's Jeff Gravley is the NCAA is still investigating so any talk of punishment from their end is wholly premature. Also, given that the NCAA has tagged both SCAR and now Florida going after agent issues it clear this is the summer of divine retribution from the governing body after what happened at USC.
Any hypothetical suspension would depend on what the NCAA can prove between now and the start of the season. According to the Bylaw Blog, we need to know whether the the NCAA representatives were with enforcement or agents, gambling and amateurism. The latter is mainly a fact-gathering operation while the former would actually be dishing out punishment.
Bylaw Blog seems to think it's enforcement, which could mean there was some wrong-doing not only at North Carolina, but South Carolina as well. South Carolina TE Weslye Saunders, a friend of Austin, is also reportedly being investigated.
It's apparent the NCAA is no longer spinning its wheels in regards to agents involved with college athletes. However, Bylaw Blog has a different explanation other than this just being the summer of divine retribution:
Popular opinion suggests that what has changed here is the NCAA's will. Fed up with being undermined by agents and lacking the resources to police them effectively, the thought is that the NCAA has begun cracking down hard on schools with violations involving agents to get schools to police themselves better.
That may be so, but more important is that the NCAA's knowledge has changed. The Agents, Gambling, and Amateurism staff is much newer than the rest of the Enforcement Staff but has gained what appears to be a critical mass of knowledge. That knowledge allows the investigators to more effectively target schools, while at the same time cast a wider net, all without using excessive resources.
This new era of NCAA investigation is what has me worried about our own players. Because of Facebook and Twitter, it's easier for agents and sports management groups (especially elite ones) to contact college athletes today. It's a problem that no school, including Virginia Tech, should consider itself immune to.
The news that Austin's involvement with a former Tar Heel player could affect his eligibility should be a warning to compliance officers around the country. There now has to be a fine line between welcoming former players back to campus with open arms and inviting unwanted headaches.
The problems facing Austin and UNC will be faced by plenty of schools in the coming years. Hopefully Virginia Tech's compliance officials, current players and ex-players are smart enough to avoid this kind of mess.