From the staff

Column: The curious case of Jennifer Wiley Thompson

dbarkin@newsobserver.comOctober 10, 2013 

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Jennifer Wiley Thompson leaves the courtroom after she made an appearance in an Orange County courtroom in Hillsborough, NC on Oct. 3, 2013. The former UNC-Chapel Hill tutor connected to the 2010 football program scandal has been charged with violating a state law governing sports agents; agent athlete inducement.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

I keep thinking that Jennifer Wiley Thompson must think this is a nightmare, and eventually the alarm will go off and she will get ready to go to school and teach youngsters. I don’t know if she really thinks that, because she hasn’t talked to reporters.

Last Friday’s paper had a big photo at the top of Page 1 of Thompson leaving Orange County District Court, her face grim, reporters and cameras in her wake. The whole UNC football scandal has been a three-year mess, but I guess I didn’t think we would be here in the fall of 2013 with Thompson standing in front of a judge, charged with violating state laws governing agents.

She was a tutor, and she tutored UNC football players. She is accused of, and I quote Anne Blythe’s story, “working to encourage a student athlete to sign with a professional sports agent.”

The story seems to be that she became friends with athletes she was hired to help academically, and her friendship led to her current predicament.

Prosecutors say she provided former UNC football player Greg Little with two round-trip plane tickets to help persuade him to sign up with a Georgia sports agent, Terry Watson. According to court documents, the agent sent payments to Thompson’s home, and Thompson then passed them on to Little. Watson was in court Wednesday to face his own charges.

Fine – and not so fine

Little, by the way, is in the middle of a $3.3 million, four-year contract. That included a $920,000 signing bonus. He is supposedly making around $600,000 this season. I got this from Rotoworld, one of those ubiquitous sites that cater to the obsessive sports fan. So Little is doing fine, for the moment. Given the short life of most NFL careers, I hope he is saving his money.

Thompson is not doing fine. In the broadest perspective, she got caught up in the strange world that is big-time college athletics. This is a world in which two things are true: Many of the athletes are academically unprepared. And these athletes are not sharing in the money.

The coaches are millionaires, the networks are getting rich televising games, but the players are doing it for scholarships and not much else. The best of them, a fraction of them, are going to make a lot of money when they go to the NFL or NBA, and so some of them take money under the table from sketchy agents and agent-wannabes who are betting on these stars getting big contracts.

Today, the $20,000 that Little has admitted receiving under the table in 2010 is chump change to him. Back in 2010, it was not chump change.

You can say, well, the rules are the rules. But that doesn’t carry much weight when everyone is getting rich except the players when they are in college and are forced to abide by incredibly complex and strict NCAA rules.

I mentioned above that many of the players are unprepared when they come to first-rate universities like UNC. So the universities provide a vast academic support system to keep these kids eligible. And, what do you know, sometimes in their desire to help these players, the tutors get too close and do things they shouldn’t.

But it is still bizarre to see Thompson sitting next to her attorney in a courtroom, like convicting her and a few agents is going to put any kind of dent in this mess that is big-time college sports. I don’t blame her for not talking, and I would be absolutely stunned if she ever testifies on her own behalf, because few defense lawyers would ever put their clients on the stand. It’s up to the prosecution to make its case, and exposing a defendant to cross-examination is risky.

All that said, I would purely love to hear Jennifer Wiley Thompson tell her story for the insights it would provide into big-time college sports, some agents’ tactics, and the inner workings of the academic support system for athletes. She had a vantage point that few will ever have.

By the way, the first stories in the UNC football scandal that ultimately led to Thompson’s appearance in court last week ran in the paper in July 2010. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the trials arising out of the cases against Thompson and others don’t take place until the middle of 2014, or later. So there are players at UNC who entered as freshmen in the late summer of 2010 who will graduate next May, and the story of Greg Little and Jennifer Thompson may still be front-page news.

What a mess.

Dan Barkin is a senior editor at The News & Observer.

dbarkin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4562

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