There are books – manuals, in fact – dedicated to what collegiate student-athletes can and cannot do.
Everything from accepting a stick of gum to a new house is dealt with and dissected. Anything from a tweet from a fan to a hundred-dollar handshake is now against the rules. Have a toke at a campus party and get popped via a drug test? There’s a rule for that. Sell crack in the football parking lot? Well, there are lots of rules for that.
Some transgressions are big, some are small. But most scrapes that the average student-athlete finds himself or herself answering to don’t come attached with the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Not so, reportedly, at the self-proclaimed Loveliest Village On The Plains, where Yahoo! Sports reported earlier Thursday that suspended Auburn University point guard Varez Ward is under investigation by federal authorities in an ongoing point-shaving probe.
According to stellar Yahoo! Sports writer Charles Robinson, three sources with knowledge of the case said the FBI has been investigating Ward since late February after he and guard Chris Denson were suspended by the Tigers prior to a February 25 home game against Arkansas.
Two sources, the story claimed, said Denson was also questioned as part of the point-shaving investigation, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing and returned to the team after sitting out the loss to the Razorbacks. The sources said additional players have been questioned in the case about whether Ward – who has not been with the team since being suspended – attempted to enlist them in a possible scheme.
The sources said at least two games are under scrutiny: a 68-50 loss to Alabama on Feb. 7 and a 56-53 loss to Arkansas on Jan. 25.
OK, kids, repeat after me. Drugs are bad, mmmkay? Striking a girl under any circumstance is wrong, mmmkay? But being implicated in a point-shaving probe that directly affects the very integrity of the game that you have given most of your life to?
That is a whole ‘nother level of wrong.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “point shaving” involves a scheme in which a player or player manipulates the game – via his own performance – to steer the ultimate outcome toward a desired gambling result. In layman’s terms, if Johnny Pointguard decides to shave points because he is promised money by shadowy characters if he can help his team lose by six, then he somehow kicks the ball out of bounds three times in 90 seconds during a crucial part of the game in an attempt to see his team lose by six.
Let’s make one thing crystal clear: I have no concrete knowledge of any aspect of Ward’s or Denson’s involvement in the FBI probe. Zero. Like many, any time news percolates that an athlete at Random Jockstrap U. is wrapped up in any kind of malfeasance, you have to look beyond the knee-jerk reaction that equates to “what the heck was that idiot thinking?”
But around age 6 we learn that cheating is fundamentally wrong, both on the playground and in life. And yes, we learn values like personal and professional integrity (often the hard way via mistakes) as we get a little older. But that “don’t cheat” fundamental pretty much comes hard-wired from the womb.
If what Robinson and Yahoo! Sports is reporting is true, the massive black eye to Auburn and coach Tony Barbee is just beginning to swell. Yes, it appears that Barbee and his staff did the right thing in that, according to the story, after the coaching staff was alerted by a player to an assistant about possible point-shaving in late February, the school contacted both the FBI and the NCAA.
The sources said that shortly after, Barbee suspended Ward and Denson indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Both players then sat out the Feb. 25 loss to Arkansas, with Barbee stating there would be no timetable for the players’ return, nor any comment going forward. Denson was reinstated one game later when Auburn faced Alabama on Feb. 29, with Barbee telling reporters Denson “deserved an opportunity” to play again.
Ward did not make the trip to Tuscaloosa, and has not been with the team since his suspension. Perhaps even more telling, his once-vocal Twitter account has been silent since the day before his suspension. And, even more telling, Auburn made a last-second recruiting pitch to 6-foot-3 guard Brian Greene Jr. in late February only days after suspending Ward. Green told Rivals.com that he heard from Auburn for the first time on Feb. 27. Members of the coaching staff were visiting Greene by March 1, and the player had committed to the Tigers by Sunday.
The most infamous point-shaving incident in college basketball history was the 1951 scandal that involved numerous players from then-national power City College of New York. More recently, reputed mobster Henry Hill instigated a point-shaving scheme with Boston College players that was later immortalized in the movie “Goodfellas.”
In total, college basketball has had a point-shaving scandal about once every decade. And in a 2006 NCAA poll, 1.5 percent of players admitted knowing of a teammate “who took money for playing poorly.”
That is not exactly the kind of national notoriety that Auburn wants, yet finds itself in the deep end of the pool with this. It is one thing to lawyer up against the NCAA and stonewall to keep the ultimate truth about Cam Newton’s recruitment from ever fully surfacing. But have fun with the FBI and its subpoena power.
Time will tell if the allegations are true, or even if there are more of them at Auburn. For the sake of the integrity of the game itself, here’s hoping it is all a big misunderstanding – and not that the Henry Hill of East Alabama is involved.