A trip by two North Carolina football players to a training facility in California last summer could impact both UNC's immediate future and the status of the 2009 season.
Former UNC defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer paid for his college teammates, Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas, to travel to California in the summer of 2009, Thomas said Tuesday.
Thomas, a rookie defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers, did not provide financial details or specific dates. However, he said that the summer before the 2009 season, he and Austin worked out at Proactive Sports Performance, a training facility in Westlake Village, Calif.
At question is whether Thomas and Austin's trip falls under NCAA rules prohibiting athletes from receiving "preferential treatment" or benefits for their "skill" or "pay-back" potential.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Thomas, who started all 13 games for UNC in the 2009 season, said he and Austin took the trip together and " 'Twan paid for it." Thomas, the Chargers' fifth-round pick, then declined further comment.
Balmer, who played at UNC from 2004 to 2007, signed a five-year, $8 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers after they made the All-ACC defensive tackle their first-round pick in April 2008. Balmer, who did not attend practice Monday or Tuesday at the 49ers training camp in Santa Clara, Calif., did not return phone calls on Tuesday.
According to the Sacramento Bee, 49ers coach Mike Singletary said that he was giving Balmer time to handle an undisclosed personal issue because the third-year player has "a lot on his plate right now."
Balmer, Thomas and Austin were teammates at UNC for the 2007 season, and each played defensive tackle. Their position coach was John Blake, UNC's recruiting coordinator and associate head coach. Balmer is represented by Gary Wichard, a California-based agent and longtime acquaintance of Blake's.
Reached for comment last week, Wichard said he would not comment about his relationship with Blake because Blake is involved with the NCAA's investigation of UNC.
UNC has declined requests to make Blake available for comment. Coach Butch Davis was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.
Amy Herman, UNC's assistant athletic director for compliance, declined to comment on Thomas' statement but answered a general question about situations where a former college player provides travel expenses for current player(s).
Herman said this type scenario would fall under the NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199.6, more commonly referred to as the "preferential treatment" bylaw. The bylaw states college athletes can't receive "preferential treatment, benefits or services because of the individual's athletics reputation or skill or pay-back potential as a professional athlete, unless such treatment, benefits or services are specifically permitted under NCAA legislation."
There are no set NCAA punishments for violating the preferential treatment bylaw, Herman said.
Potential punishments are wide ranging, but if the NCAA rules UNC used an ineligible player(s), the school would possibly have to vacate its wins from the 2009 season. UNC went 8-5 last season.
NCAA investigators made initial visits to Chapel Hill on July 12 and July 13 to interview an undisclosed number of players, including Austin, about potentially receiving improper benefits from an agent. The NCAA returned to Chapel Hill on Aug. 4.
Austin, a senior defensive tackle and second-team All-ACC performer last season, faces the possibility of being ruled ineligible for the entire 2010 season or a portion of it, depending on the cost of the trip and the amount he would have to pay back.
Austin, who considered leaving for the NFL after his junior season, has not commented publically since UNC acknowledged the NCAA investigation on July 15.
The NCAA does allow exceptions to the preferential treatment bylaw if the athlete has a "preexisting relationship" with the individual who provided the benefit, NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said Tuesday.
Austin developed a friendship with Balmer, after Austin enrolled at UNC in 2007 and views Balmer, then a senior, as a mentor.
"Any time I needed anything - I needed to wash my clothes, I needed to go somewhere, when times got tough -- [Balmer] was right there for me," Austin said in an interview with The News & Observer in 2008.
Moses Ware, Austin's high school coach in Washington, said Austin has a relationship with Balmer, not Wichard.
"That's Kentwan's agent," said Ware, who coached Austin at both Coolidge and Ballou high schools. "Marvin doesn't have an agent," Ware said. "Marvin and Kentwan are friends. You can't take that away from him."
Wichard is one of many agents who has been sent a letter in an investigation of possible violations of the state's Uniform Athlete Agent Act launched by N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. Although Wichard's name is not on the list of 107 agents registered to work in North Carolina on the secretary of state's website, Secretary of State spokeswoman Liz Proctor confirmed that Wichard was sent a letter.
Wichard has declined to talk about his relationship with either Blake or Austin with The News & Observer. Wichard called Blake his "best friend" in a Yahoo Sports report published on Monday. Blake worked as the Vice President of Football Operations at Wichard's Pro Tect Management, according to a Tulsa World article from December 2001.
According to Yahoo, Wichard said he saw Balmer and Austin at the Proactive facility last summer. The agent, who has built a reputation for improving players' draft stock before the NFL combine, has used the facility to prepare his clients for the combine. Wichard also told Yahoo that Balmer paid for Austin's trip there.
The Proactive Sports Performance website lists both Thomas and Austin as past participants at the facility, known for drawing high-profile NFL players as clients. (According to the NFL Players Association's player agent listing, Thomas is represented by Hadley Engelhard.)
The NCAA has previously questioned Blake and Wichard's relationship. In 1997, when Blake was the head coach at Oklahoma, Blake allowed Wichard on the sidelines of an Oklahoma game and in the locker room but the inquiry did not result in any violations, according to Oklahoma's compliance office.
Staff writers Ken Tysiac and Robbi Pickeral contributed to this report.
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