College football programs from the talent-rich Southeastern Conference are having to defend themselves in the wake of allegations of money being funneled to players.
Yahoo Sports reported Wednesday that five SEC players received improper benefits during their college careers, including former Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, casting yet another dark cloud over college sports.
The players were Fluker, who started on two national championship teams, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray and defensive lineman Maurice Couch, Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and wide receiver Chad Bumphis.
The report cited text messages and financial records of former Alabama defensive end Luther Davis and an unnamed NFL source who said Davis was a go-between for the players with NFL agents and financial advisers.
All three schools issued statements Wednesday saying they are investigating the allegations.
The report comes on the heels of Sports Illustrated articles outlining alleged widespread misconduct within the Oklahoma State program, including academic fraud and illegal payments. Before that, Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel was investigated — and ultimately suspended for the first half of the Aggies’ season opener — for what the school called an “inadvertent” violation involving signing autographs.
The Yahoo report named three NFL agents and three financial advisers who Yahoo said engaged in transactions totaling at least $45,550 with Davis between September 2011 and December 2012.
Davis, who played on Alabama’s 2009 national championship team, declined to comment in the Yahoo report.
Yahoo said records show Davis distributing at least $12,700 in cash, airfare and other expenses to the five players. The report included a 49-item invoice totaling $33,755 from February 2013 that Davis emailed to Fluker’s onetime financial adviser, Hodge Brahmbhatt.
Agents Andy Simms, Peter Schaffer and John Phillips and financial adviser Mike Rowan each confirmed giving money to Davis, according to Yahoo, but said they didn’t instruct the former player to provide benefits to players, and didn’t know of him doing so.
Yahoo said financial advisers Jason Jernigan and Brahmbhatt declined comment.
The transactions could violate NCAA rules prohibiting benefits from agents or representatives.
Southern California received heavy sanctions for improper benefits to Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush, including a two-year bowl ban, four years of probation, 30 lost scholarships and 14 vacated victories.
Couch is a senior for the Volunteers. Fluker, Bray and Cox are currently playing in the NFL while Bumphis was recently released by the Miami Dolphins.
Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement that the university was aware of the Yahoo’s report.
“We have been aware of some of the allegations in today’s story and our compliance department was looking into this situation prior to being notified that this story was actually going to be published,” Battle said. “Our review is ongoing. We diligently educate our student-athletes on maintaining compliance with NCAA rules, and will continue to do so.”
Crimson Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley said after Wednesday’s practice that if the allegations did occur, nothing like that is happening now.
“It was upsetting to hear, but at the end of the day, that’s what happened in the past,” he said. “The coaches do a great job of informing us and our parents about agents and things like that. So I’m pretty sure that won’t be happening again.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban said he was confident the university will “handle the situation appropriately.”
Saban, who is preparing his top-ranked Tide for Saturday’s visit to No. 6 Texas A&M, said he hadn’t read the report, but praised how Alabama players have avoided temptations.
“For as many high-profile players as we’ve had around here, I’m fairly pleased with the way most of them, for the most part, have managed their circumstances and their situation and focused on what they need to do for the University of Alabama,” he said.
But Saban quickly became irritated with questions about the report, saying he only wanted to talk about the game. No more questions came and he walked out of the interview room saying, “Appreciate your interest in the game.”
He’s right, the constant allegations of rules violations are taking the focus away from the field.
The latest allegations could lead to investigations by Secretary of State offices regarding agent laws.
“Mississippi State University has always been responsive and cooperative to any inquiry by our Agency,” Mississippi Secretary of State of Delbert Hosemann told The Associated Press in a statement. “However, it is the policy of the Secretary of State’s Office to neither confirm, comment or deny any current or potential investigation our Agency conducts.”
Mississippi State spokesman Gregg Ellis said the university “constantly educates our student-athletes about agent-related issues. We’ve also worked closely with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office in recent years to strengthen the Mississippi Uniform Agent Act. As always, we will do our due diligence to evaluate any potential concerns.”
Mississippi State and Tennessee are both on probation for other NCAA violations until the summer of 2015.
Tennessee athletic department spokesman Jimmy Stanton also said the university emphasizes rules compliance.
“The education of our student-athletes regarding NCAA rules and extra benefits is and will continue to be the central focus of our compliance efforts,” Stanton said. “We are aware of the article and are examining all of the relevant facts, and we will not comment further.”
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said on his weekly radio show Wednesday night he could only comment on what had taken place since he took over the program in December.
“All I can tell you is this,” Jones said, “we’re well aware of (the report). We’ve been educating our players since the minute we walked in the door, and we’ll see what happens.”