Former UNC tutor connected to football scandal charged with violating NC sports agent laws

ablythe@newsobserver.comOctober 3, 2013 

  • The story so far

    A tweet in summer 2010 launched investigations into UNC-Chapel Hill’s football program, athletics department and fundraising arm of the university that resulted in NCAA infractions, ousters and resignations of high-ranking coaches and administrators, and now criminal charges.

    Former player Marvin Austin posted to Twitter about an expensive night out in Miami Beach.

    By July 2010, the NCAA had started an investigation focusing on the possibility of players receiving “impermissible benefits” from sports agents. Soon the investigation expanded to the possibility that players also might have received impermissible academic help.

    After a lengthy investigation, the NCAA Committee on Infractions in March 2012 placed UNC-CH on probation, reduced the number of its football scholarships, and ruled that the Tar Heels serve a one-year postseason ban.

    The NCAA’s investigation found that six UNC-CH football players over three seasons competed while ineligible because of those violations, and that multiple football players received impermissible benefits valued at more than $31,000.

    Along the way, investigations also revealed that UNC-CH football players had been given credit for classes they did not have to show up for, launching a State Bureau of Investigation probe into problems with the African-American studies department.

    Since the investigations started, Holden Thorp resigned as chancellor and was replaced by Carol Folt.

    Butch Davis, the football coach in 2010, was pushed out, and John Blake, an assistant coach investigated for having ties to agents, resigned.

    Dick Baddour, athletics director at the time of the scandal, resigned earlier than he had planned.

— The former UNC-Chapel Hill tutor who figured prominently in the NCAA infractions found within the Tar Heel football program has taken on a new role as the 2010 scandal moves from the sports arena to the field of law.

Jennifer Wiley Thompson, whom NCAA investigators accused of improperly helping football players with papers and writing assignments, now is accused criminally of working to encourage a student athlete to sign with a professional sports agent.

Thompson, who has yet to speak publicly about any of the accusations against her since the NCAA began investigating the football program in 2010, went before an Orange County District Court judge Thursday.

Thompson, who worked in a UNC-CH academic support center from 2007 to 2009, is accused of four counts of athlete-agent inducement, a low-level felony that carries of maximum of 15 months and also the possibility of civil penalties up to $25,000.

Thompson was greeted by TV cameras and media crews as she made her way up the steps of the courthouse in Hillsborough.

Prosecutors contend that Thompson provided former UNC-CH football player Greg Little, now a wide receiver with the Cleveland Browns, with two $579 round-trip plane tickets to Florida as part of an attempt to persuade him to enter a contract with sports agent Terry Watson of the Georgia-based Watson Sports Agency.

Later that year, the indictments charge, Thompson delivered packages to Little containing $2,000 and $150 in cash.

Thompson’s arrest is the first of a handful expected in the coming days related to a protracted investigation into sports agents by the N.C. Secretary of State. The Orange County grand jury earlier this week handed up indictments related to the case, but the public documents were immediately sealed. As the accused are booked, the indictments likely will be made pubic.

‘An indictment is simply a charge’

Joseph B. Cheshire V, the Raleigh attorney who has represented Thompson since 2010, when she refused to talk with NCAA investigators about her ties to 11 Tar Heel football players, responded to the accusations Thursday.

“I would encourage all your readers to remember an indictment is simply a charge, it is not evidence of any guilt,” Cheshire said in a text message.

NCAA rules allow agents to meet with college athletes, but forbid the students from entering into contracts, verbal or written, while still eligible to play. Players cannot accept meals, gifts, transportation or other incentives to sign contracts later.

But NCAA regulations govern the athletes and schools, not the agents.

Under North Carolina law, sports agents are required to register with the Secretary of State’s office and are prohibited from providing cash and other benefits to student athletes.

In addition to mandatory registration, the law requires agents to notify schools immediately when they sign college athletes. The students are given 14 days to change their minds and cancel contracts. And schools have the legal right to sue agents who violate the law – though that option is rarely exercised. Agents who fail to comply can be punished with civil or criminal penalties.

The criminal allegations tied to the UNC-CH case come in a college sports era in which there are increasing concerns about improper contact between athletes and agents.

Austin and Little

Warrants tied to the Secretary of State investigation have focused much attention on two players – Little, who reportedly signed a four-year, $3.3 million contract with the Browns in July 2011, and Marvin Austin.

Little, according to a warrant unsealed last month, told agents with the Secretary of State’s office that he received more than $20,000 from Watson in 2010, his final year on campus before leaving school. UNC-CH had declared him permanently ineligible amid the widespread NCAA investigation.

In a detailed account provided to state investigators in January, Little offered a detailed account of the shady underworld through which sports agents often attempt to lure high-profile athletes with cash and gifts.

In those court documents, Secretary of State special agent A.H. Jones contends that Watson broke the law by providing Little with a steady stream of cash during his time at UNC-CH.

The affidavit says that after Little agreed to let Watson become his agent, Watson came to North Carolina and provided Little with $5,000. Little told agents that Watson gave him a monthly cash allowance of $2,200, and that he received $20,000 from Watson in 2010 alone.

Watson, according to the affidavit, sent payments to Thompson’s address, and then she would forward them to Little.

State investigators contend that Little told them he didn’t want to receive the payments directly from Watson for fear of potential scrutiny from the NCAA.

In March 2012, after the NCAA issued infractions against the Tar Heel football program, Cheshire acknowledged that the former tutor had assisted several players with their school work in ways that placed her “sometimes out of bounds without even knowing she was, but yes, occasionally just out of bounds.”

Allegations against Thompson

Though Thompson was not an employee of the university when she helped the 11 players with homework, her actions, according to the NCAA infractions report, “must be seen as those of a booster.”

Under NCAA bylaws, the fact that she worked at the academic support center made her, the report said, “an individual … who is known (or should have been known) by a member of the institution’s executive or athletics administration to … be assisting or have assisted in providing benefits to enrolled student-athletes or their families.”

In the NCAA infractions report, investigators contended that Thompson, described as “the former tutor,” broke rules by helping players write summary paragraphs for papers, correcting their grammar and composing pages that cited research sources for writing assignments. The report said she also paid a $150 airline ticket change fee so a player could return from spring break early. She also made a one-time payment of $1,789 to settle a player’s overdue campus parking tickets. It was unclear whether she was reimbursed.

Carol Folt, UNC-CH chancellor since July 1, was traveling Thursday and could not be reached for comment on the criminal allegations.

Bubba Cunningham, the UNC-CH director of athletics, issued a statement: “As only one of the five indictments is known at this time, we will continue to monitor the developments of the case and support the work of the Secretary of State’s Office.”

Rick Karcher, an attorney and six-year director of the Center for Law and Sports at the Florida Coastal School of Law, has researched and written about player-agent regulation.

Reached Thursday in a telephone interview, Karcher said the criminal allegations related to the UNC-CH football scandal are the exception, not the norm. The criminal indictments handed up by an Orange County grand jury this week send a caution to rogue and cavalier agents ignoring the rules, he said.

“We’ve seen so many cases over the ages where states never get involved,” Karcher said. “The larger message of this is, although most states are not enforcing their state agents acts, you never know when a state might decide to do so.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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