On Thursday, Yahoo! Sportswriter Charles Robinson reported that Auburn basketball player Varez Ward is under federal investigation for point-shaving. Social media erupted shortly thereafter with speculation, jokes and sadness from all manner of sports fans. The most important fact Robinson reported: It is an FBI investigation as opposed to an NCAA one.
FBI investigations are an entirely different animal from NCAA inquiries. While NCAA investigators can probe and ask questions, they cannot force a source to answer. The FBI has many more ways to obtain information for any investigation it undertakes. The main tool of the FBI that is not available to the NCAA is subpoena power.
A subpoena is a formal document that orders a named individual to appear before an authorized body to give testimony. These orders can be extended to order the named individual to bring with them specific documents. Refusing to acknowledge a subpoena and appear can give rise to the charge of contempt of court.
What does that legal jargon mean? The common defense of many NCAA programs is to lawyer up and stonewall the investigation. Subpoena power is the Paris Gun to an NCAA stonewall defense. If subpoenaed, Auburn would have to comply and provide witnesses and documents to the FBI.
Subpoena power is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. There are limits to what subpoenas can be issued for. An investigator can only subpoena documents for that specific investigation. The FBI cannot use the Varez Ward investigation as a springboard to any other portion of the Auburn athletic department, such as the recent Cam Newton NCAA probe, without probable cause.
There is precedent for initial investigations to open up more investigations, though. Alabama residents are very familiar with the recent “Bingogate” trials. Those trials only began after wiretaps that were focused on the Colonial Bank fraud investigation revealed evidence of potential wrongdoing surrounding a 2010 gambling law in Alabama. It is important to point out that nothing that has come to light about the Varez Ward investigation suggests the FBI is using anywhere close to the same amount of resources as they did when investigating Colonial Bank.
Where will the investigation into Varez Ward end? It is impossible to say for sure. The FBI has much further reach than the NCAA, but what they can do is bounded by what is necessary for their investigation. It is definitely a dark time for Auburn basketball, and pours more negative publicity onto a university that has been bludgeoned by the press in the past 24 months for perceived missteps. In the zero-sum game that is collegiate athletics in the state of Alabama, anything bad for Auburn is good for Alabama. The basketball investigation will provide an excellent water cooler debate topic until fall rolls around again.