Georgia sports agent Terry S. Watson used bundles of cash in efforts to sign future professional athletes while they were still playing at UNC-Chapel Hill while also enticing athletes at other schools in North Carolina and beyond, according to interviews and court documents.
With charges now filed against two of five expected defendants, a picture is emerging of an alleged network led by Watson that worked to secure athletes as clients from the top ranks of college sports. Authorities say it was done in violation of laws that prohibit agents from paying amateur college players.
Athletes at three schools other than UNC have been named in court papers: football players from the University of South Carolina, the University of Florida and N.C. Central University in Durham.
The court documents also say money from Watson didn’t just go to athletes – it was allegedly sent to their relatives, girlfriends, friends, and others associated with the athletes. In one instance, Watson apparently had to deal with an upset player after money was sent to a girlfriend who had broken up with him.
The allegations come from various court papers unsealed in recent months, as well as from an interview with a friend of Watson’s and limited comments by Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall, who is prosecuting the case.
Agent prosecutions are rare, and the Watson case is believed to be the first of its kind in North Carolina. Authorities in Alabama, Louisiana and Florida have all prosecuted violations of agent laws in their states in the past two decades.
Watson, who turns 40 later this month and lives in Marietta, Ga., has not formally answered the 14 felony charges he now faces. He declined to comment Wednesday after appearing in court.
Several other schools?
State records in North Carolina and Georgia show that Watson formed his company, Watson Sports Agency, in the fall of 2005 while he was in law school at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. Within two months, he was representing a future NFL Pro Bowl player from Samford, Cortland Finnegan.
Watson finished law school in 2006 and began adding clients, according to state records and the NFL Players Association. Among more than a dozen athletes he signed from the college ranks were players at Florida, Florida State, Miami (Fla.), South Carolina, Georgia, Notre Dame, Maryland and Clemson.
Officials at those schools said they have not been contacted by investigators, were unaware of the court case or did not respond to requests.
Watson was suspended by the NFLPA in April after refusing to cooperate in its inquiry into his dealings.
Affidavits filed by an investigator for the N.C. Secretary of State’s office describe text messages between Watson and multiple athletes that were copied to a computer belonging to Watson. The computer was seized and examined by investigators in October 2012.
“Many of those text messages and numerous others are believed to contain information of illegal payments to the UNC-CH student-athletes, and student-athletes from other institutions in North Carolina and other states,” agent A.H. Jones wrote in an affidavit seeking to examine Watson’s bank records.
The affidavit also describes Western Union money wire transfers from Watson to “identifiable student-athletes from other states.”
According to several affidavits, Watson was providing cash payments to players he wanted as clients because he believed “this was the only way (he) could compete with the bigger athlete agents and their companies.”
Woodall, who has brought three other prosecutors into the case, said investigators have developed information about “activity” in at least four other states.
He could not provide further details about circumstances beyond UNC, citing the pending investigation. He said would not rule out investigative action at other North Carolina schools. He indicated nothing is imminent elsewhere.
‘More to follow soon’
The indictments of Watson allege that he funneled thousands in cash and trips to several star players at UNC – a place where he was unsuccessful in signing any athletes as clients.
Watson and an associate, Willie Barley of Miami, arranged a Florida trip for several UNC football players in 2010, according to court records. Barley took the players around town and connected them with a jeweler, who provided them with free jewelry. Those actions led to NCAA sanctions against UNC.
Barley could not be reached.
The documents also say that Michael Johnson, a former quarterback at N.C. Central who was close with some UNC players, was on one Florida trip and that his $579.50 airfare was paid by former UNC tutor Jennifer Wiley Thompson, who has been charged in the case.
Watson then reimbursed the former tutor for the cost of Johnson’s flight, documents say. Johnson now works for Drew Rosenhaus, one of the best-known sports agents in the country. Attempts to reach Johnson were unsuccessful.
Court documents also name Chris Culliver, a standout player who went from Garner High School to the University of South Carolina and then on to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
The investigator wrote in a January affidavit that text exchanges contained references to what “we believe are illegal wire transfers into bank accounts and packages sent to deliver payments.”
“That belief is based on Watson’s continuous efforts to conceal the transactions,” the investigator wrote. “Two good examples are text messages sent by Watson to Chris Culliver where Watson confirms he has sent money, e.g., ‘What’s up. I did. 550 of it. More to follow soon’.”
Watson instructed Culliver to delete the text message, according to the court documents. A spokesman for the 49ers said he could not comment and that Culliver is on injured reserve this season.
A close friend of Watson’s, Patrick Jones, 39, of Cartersville, Ga., told The News & Observer in an interview this week that he recalls wiring money to Brandon Spikes, who was a top player at the University of Florida and was signed by Watson in early 2010, ahead of that year’s NFL draft. Spikes is now playing with the NFL’s New England Patriots.
Attempts to reach Spikes or obtain comment through his current agent failed.
Jones, who works in real estate and became friends with Watson while they were undergraduates at Georgia Southern University, said he could not recall specifics surrounding the timing of the mailing to Spikes because he thought it was five or six years ago. Spikes was drafted into the NFL three years ago. Jones then said the wire transfer could have been around that time or even after the draft.
One affidavit appears to document Jones providing Spikes with $212 in March 2011 – and the court document described Spikes in that passage as a “non-North Carolina player Watson was trying to recruit.” However, Spikes was already in the NFL in March 2011. Efforts to obtain an explanation from the Secretary of State’s office were unsuccessful.
According to court papers, Jones told the investigator that he had mailed “cash-filled” packages to college players for Watson and that Watson “only sent money to the players who asked for it.”
Asked about such payments in an interview, Jones disputed the investigator’s account.
He said he thinks he became flustered during the interview, which he said took place just after he had woken up. “I wish I hadn’t talked to her,” Jones said.
He said records of some packages sent to athletes show his name as the sender, but that they were actually sent by Watson. The court papers say a handwriting analysis shows Watson’s handwriting put Jones’ name down as the sender of at least one package. News researcher Susan Ebbs contributed.