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Friday, October 1, 2010

The "Rest of the Story" Behind the Big Alabama-Florida Game

Coach Nick Saban

Millions of Americans will settle in front of their televisions tomorrow night to watch the biggest college football game of the young season--No. 7 Florida vs. No. 1 Alabama.

The game will kick off at 7 in Tuscaloosa, about 60 miles southwest of our home base near Birmingham. I certainly plan to be watching, but my mind will not be focused totally on the game action. That's because I know some ugly truths about the University of Alabama's powerhouse football program--and I see signs that the nation gradually is starting to awaken to the story.

Alabama essentially has the finest coach, players, and facilities that money can buy, and I expect the Crimson Tide to lay a pretty serious whipping on the Gators tomorrow night. But what about, as Paul Harvey would say, the "rest of the story"? Well, it's coming out in bits and pieces--and it ain't pretty, especially when you start talking about big-name boosters and financial fraud.

A dose of reality shined on the Alabama football program a few days ago when The Wall Street Journal reported that Coach Nick Saban has made it a practice to force certain players into accepting medical scholarships. Reporters Hannah Karp and Darren Everson write:

Former Alabama football players say the school's No. 1-ranked football program has tried to gain a competitive edge by encouraging some underperforming players to quit the team for medical reasons, even in cases where the players are still healthy enough to play.

At least 12 times since coach Nick Saban took over the program in 2007, Alabama has offered players a "medical" scholarship, according to public statements made by the team. These scholarships, which are allowed under NCAA rules, are intended to make sure scholarship athletes who are too injured to play don't lose their financial aid. A player who receives one of these scholarships is finished playing with that team.

Three Alabama players who've taken these exemptions say they believe the team uses the practice as a way to clear spots for better players by cutting players it no longer wants. These players said they believe Mr. Saban and his staff pressure some players to take these scholarships even though their injuries aren't serious enough to warrant keeping them off the field.

That doesn't paint a very pretty picture of Crimson Tide football. But the real ugliness comes when you start looking into the background of Paul Bryant Jr., the son of the late Hall of Fame coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and UA's most powerful football booster. In fact, a number of polls have rated Bryant among the most powerful money men in all of college athletics.

So how does Bryant handle money? Not in a very ethical fashion, according to public records that we have reported on here at Legal Schnauzer.

One of Bryant's companies, Alabama Reassurance, was implicated in a $15-million fraud scheme in the late 1990s. A Pennsylvania lawyer and entrepreneur named Allen W. Stewart is serving a 15-year prison sentence for his role in the fraud. But Bryant and his company have escaped serious scrutiny, with the mainstream press ignoring the Alabama connections to the Stewart case.

Bryant went on to liquidate Alabama Re about two years ago, essentially making a $238-million company disappear. Why did he do that? The press isn't asking, and the low-profile Bryant probably is not anxious to answer.

You can rest assured that CBS will not raise questions about Bryant's financial dealings on tomorrow night's telecast. But as you watch the game unfold, with Alabama probably in control most of the way, you might ask yourself this question: Does the Crimson Tide benefit from having a booster with ties to financial fraud, a man who recently liquidated a $238-million company?

The Bryant story also raises uncomfortable questions about the misconduct of federal prosecutors, the subject of an ongoing investigative report by USA Today. The series, so far, has focused on individuals who were wrongly convicted because of prosecutorial misconduct. But consider this paragraph from the USA Today story:

Federal prosecutors are supposed to seek justice, not merely score convictions. But a USA TODAY investigation found that prosecutors repeatedly have violated that duty in courtrooms across the nation. The abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions.

Were guilty people allowed to skate in the Alabama Re case because of a certain businessman's famous name and clout? Our research indicates the answer might be yes. As we have reported previously, a source who was deeply involved in the Allen W. Stewart case said investigators were told that if they got a conviction in Pennsylvania, they could come back to Alabama and focus on Paul Bryant Jr.'s company.

By the time the Stewart case was over, a new U.S. attorney had taken over in Birmingham, and the investigation into Alabama Re was called off. Did that decision constitute the kind of prosecutorial misconduct that USA Today now is examining? What kind of ties did that new U.S. attorney have to Bryant? We will be looking into those questions.

Alabama football presents an awfully pretty face to the public. But some blemishes are starting to appear. And our reporting indicates some grotesque boils might be lurking beneath the surface. We understand that those boils could be uncovered if the right people dig hard enough.

For now, the public probably only cares about what takes place on the green grass of Bryant-Denny Stadium tomorrow night. And here is a Schnauzer prediction: Alabama 27, Florida 10.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Re: 'Medical' scholarships.

Is Alabama the only top program using this practice to improve the team's performance? Or is this not unique to a Saban-coached program?

Couldn't the player agree to quit the team, then once separated from NCAA scrutiny, receive a paid ride from a generous wealthy booster? If playing football was the main reason for being in the school, and the player wasn't going to play at Alabama, wouldn't a transfer to a smaller school make more sense?

On another note, I'm looking forward to your take on these corruption arrests.

House of Roberts - Huntsville, Al.

legalschnauzer said...

Anon:

My understanding is that other programs use these medical scholarships. The question with Saban seems to be: Is he using them for players who actually are healthy, but just haven't proven to be very good players? Is it just a way to get rid of one guy and open up a real scholarship for someone else?

Johnny Smith said...

If a team uses a player that is either on scholarship to another sport, or whose tuition is paid by a generous wealthy booster, that players counts as a scholarship player for the football team, and is counted against the total. The NCAA doesn't allow football players who are not scholarship players to participate in a sport, unless they are paying their own way. If that were the case, schools with wealthy alumni could sign an unlimited number of players, as Alabama did before the scholarship limitations were approved.