Nearly seven years have passed since a UNC football player’s tweet sparked investigations into improper benefits from sports agents and a scandal that continues to dog the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
On Monday, in a courtroom in the seat of the county that houses UNC, Georgia sports agent Terry Watson pleaded guilty to violating state law as part of a plea arrangement with prosecutors. Watson was sentenced to 30 months probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine. During his probation, he is barred from working for a sports agency.
The plea by Watson came after a day of meetings with four people accused in criminal cases resulting from one of the probes.
Defense attorneys spent much time with Jeff Nieman, an assistant Orange County district attorney, and investigators outside the courtroom throughout a day that brought the unexpected plea from Watson.
Russell Babb, the Raleigh attorney representing Watson, said his client wanted closure in a case that has destroyed his business and cost him his NFL Players Association license. He recently lost his marriage, too, Babb said.
“He has really paid a heavy price for his decisions,” Babb said.
Babb told Judge A. Graham Shirley II that he had not expected to be standing before him on Monday resolving the criminal charges against Watson with a plea.
“But Terry Watson very much sort of drove that,” Babb said. “Terry Watson was the one who wanted to accept responsibility and achieve some closure today.”
Since the collapse of his business, a Georgia-based sports agency he formed after finishing law school at Samford University in Alabama, Watson has worked in chemical sales in the Marietta, Ga., area and as a waiter at night.
Watson’s plea resolved one of the five criminal cases that resulted from the probe into the tweet sent out in 2010 by former UNC player Marvin Austin. It came after Patrick Jones, a Georgia real estate agent and longtime associate, agreed to testify against him as part of an arrangement he brokered with Orange County prosecutors.
Prosecutors agreed to drop one charge that has lingered over Jones since 2013, if he stays out of criminal trouble for a year, completes 48 hours of community service and worked with prosecutors in the Watson case.
Watson faced 14 felony counts in Orange County – 13 for athlete-agent inducement and one for obstructing justice. As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to drop the obstructing justice charge.
Watson, 43, acknowledged giving nearly $24,000 in cash, airline tickets or hotel rooms to Austin, as well as former UNC football players Greg Little and Robert Quinn, to get them to sign with his agency while they still were college players.
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 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 inquiry into Watson is rooted in a Secretary of State investigation that began in 2010 after the NCAA started looking into allegations that players with the North Carolina football program had taken improper benefits from sports agents. It began with a tweet from Austin about a lavish trip to South Beach in Florida at someone else’s expense: “I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate. bottles comin like its a giveaway.”
In March 2012, the NCAA issued penalties against UNC’s football program, including three years of probation and a ban on postseason play that year. The office of the Secretary of State continued its probe into the improper benefits after the NCAA penalties, and Jones, Watson and three others were indicted in September 2013.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office quickly dismissed charges against one of those accused criminally – Jennifer Wiley Thompson, a former UNC tutor among those charged in September 2013.
Michael Wayne Johnson Jr., a former N.C. Central quarterback and a friend of Little, faces accusations of athlete-agent inducement, too. His case could be resolved Tuesday.
Quinn, Austin and Little had no UNC playing time in 2010, while the investigations were underway. Each was selected in the NFL draft the next spring. At No. 14, Quinn went the highest in the draft when he was taken by the Rams, where he continues to play outside linebacker.
Austin and Little have each spent time with four teams since the 2011 draft and are both currently free agents.