When NCAA investigators decided back in July to interview rival players under cover of immunity as part of their Ole Miss probe, they had to know they were taking a risk. Sure, the move could (and did) reveal the smoking pay-for-play gun they’d been after for months, but it also risked pulling other SEC schools down into the mess.
With the NCAA set to announce its long-awaited punishment on Friday, that risk seems greater than ever. On Thursday afternoon, SB Nation’s Stephen Godfrey reported that current Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis, the NCAA’s star witness in its case against the Rebels, fessed up to receiving $10,000 in cash to sign with the Bulldogs. The admission came back in early September during the Committee on Infractions (COI) hearing.
From Godfrey’s report:
According to sources, Lewis told the Committee on Infractions he received a cash payment of $10,000 “from Mississippi State” on the eve of National Signing Day 2015 to sign with the Bulldogs. When pressed by members of the COI to elaborate, sources say that Lewis stated that he received money to attend MSU from Calvin Green, a defensive backs coach for Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. Green is the father of Farrod Green, Lewis’ friend and Mississippi State teammate, according to sources and documentation.
The NCAA’s damning second Notice of Allegations, which ramped up the violations against Ole Miss from Level II “failure to monitor” to a Level I “lack of institutional control,” was based heavily on Lewis’ testimony, which included the allegation that a Rebel booster also paid him $10,000. That puts the NCAA in a tight spot when deciding how to respond to his admission of taking cash from State. They can’t say that Lewis is a reliable witness when it comes to his allegations against Ole Miss while dismissing his admission about State.
As I see it, the NCAA has two options: 1) sweep the State allegation under the rug and effectively admit that this investigation has been a vendetta against Ole Miss or 2) open up an investigation on State and hope the string being pulled in Oxford doesn’t unravel half of the SEC.
If the NCAA really wants to, it might be able to let State off on a technicality.
As has no doubt been tweeted in all caps by every State fan on your timeline, Lewis receiving money from Calvin Green isn’t necessarily an NCAA violation. NCAA bylaws allow for recruits to receive money from non-family members if it can be proven that the relationship existed before the player became a high-profile prospect and that the payment had nothing to do with his recruitment.
If any payment was delivered after the athlete gained notoriety—as Lewis’ comments to the COI suggest it could have been, in his case—MSU would need proof that there is a history of payments and a relationship between Calvin Green and Lewis that began before Lewis’ status as a top football recruit in order to show that there was no violation of the NCAA bylaws.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that Green hasn’t been regularly dropping Lewis thousands of dollars since before he was a big-time croot. But lets just say State is able to show that Green is a longtime family friend and has given the kid some occasional birthday money.
Is the NCAA really going to ask us to believe that in the immediate leadup to National Signing Day, at roughly the same time an Ole Miss booster paid Lewis the same amount of money, Green’s cash didn’t come on behalf of the Bulldogs? Letting them off on that transparent technicality would be no different than announcing this whole investigation was witch hunt.
Oh, and Lewis’ testimony also suggests collusion between the NCAA and State.
Ya see, Lewis also told the COI that his head coach, Dan Mullen, gave him a heads up about being interviewed by the NCAA back in April of 2016—roughly three months before the NCAA contacted State to request that interview.
Why is that a problem?
Sources told Godfrey that “standard protocol for NCAA enforcement to notify an active student athlete about an upcoming interview is typically 1-2 days, and that head coaches are routinely not involved to avoid influencing the student athlete.” Yet here’s Mullen sitting down to discuss these unprecedented immunity interviews with Lewis months before the NCAA formally reached out to set them up.
Attorneys involved in the case had long talked about collusion between the enforcement staff and Mississippi State, a charge the NCAA had denied. Lewis’ admission was counter to the enforcement staff’s claims. It was a major aha moment, one that sucked the oxygen out of the room.
According to sources in the room that day in Covington, after lunch, the enforcement staff attempted to explain how they didn’t know about Green and the timeline. They rambled and stumbled through those explanations.
None of this changes the fact that Ole Miss will probably get major sanctions ... but it does put the NCAA in a precarious position.
This investigation has succeeded in proving that the Rebel program committed major violations during its climb to prominence under Hugh Freeze. But it will also draw heavy scrutiny from those who have tired of the NCAA’s arbitrary and self-serving interpretations of its rules.
The Rebel program may not be the only thing dragged down by this investigation.