The NCAA has become a black market. At some point, Laremy Tunsil’s petty, common, under-the-table transactions as a college football player at Mississippi metastasized into something else, something that looks suspiciously like a smear campaign and a blackmail attempt. This is the ultimate ill of an old-world system that earns millions for everyone but the players: It left a 21-year-old vulnerable to a vengeful shyster operating in an underworld.
The initial fallout from Tunsil’s tumble in the NFL draft involved a lot of lectures about the perils of social media and moral posturing by the NFL on the harms of marijuana — most of which is nonsense and none of which is the real evil. The real evil is the underground economy on which college football has long rested, which has grown to include a seriously mean criminal element.
“Tunsil apparently let people get close to him — probably through financial gifts — and then separated, causing vindictiveness and reciprocation,” says Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive turned ESPN business analyst. “That is unfortunate but probably happens more than we think.”
Somebody shopped the goods on Tunsil. They hacked his phone and peddled footage of him inhaling a face full of weed-smoke at Ole Miss, trying to sell it to Deadspin. When they were unsuccessful, they released the video on Tunsil’s own Twitter account 15 minutes before the NFL draft began, causing him to fall from a potential No. 3 pick to No. 13, thereby damaging him to the tune of about $10 million. All of this smacked of the act of a leg breaker, a muscle man.
The latest theory on the perpetrator is that it was someone with whom Tunsil got entangled as a cash-strapped undergrad, only to spurn in favor of mega-agent Jimmy Sexton. Tunsil’s agent and lawyer are investigating an unaccredited former “adviser” whom Tunsil hired in October, from whom Tunsil accepted a new cellphone and who knows what else.
Among other things released in the hack of Tunsil’s accounts were text-message exchanges showing that Tunsil had hit up an Ole Miss coach for cash to pay his rent and his mother’s $305 utility bill.
Up to this point, the NCAA just looked like a stingily Victorian organization, run by self-interested, pocket-lining administrators. But after what happened to Tunsil, it looks like a potential breeding ground for extortion.
The point here is not that Tunsil could have shown more smarts or restraint. If Tunsil smoked pot, so what? Mississippi has decriminalized it to a fine. And if he used Ole Miss for money, well, where did he learn that? Under NCAA rules, Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze, who earns about $5 million a year, can use Tunsil in almost any way he likes, while Tunsil himself is forbidden from accepting so much as an extra meal above board, all in the name of an outdatedly prudish conception of amateurism.
The worst part of this subterranean economy is the way it criminalizes the wrong people for perfectly trivial behavior. Text messages from Tunsil’s hacked Instagram account, another little bit of vengeance, show that in February and April 2015, Tunsil texted Ole Miss assistant athletic director John Miller asking for financial help that amounted to less than $500. It also shows Miller quibbling with him.
Tunsil: “Coach, Mom’s light bill is due. It’s $305. What should I do about it?”
Miller: “Wow — for one month??”
That a player with a million-dollar future had to scratch around for a couple hundred dollars so that his mother’s lights wouldn’t get shut off is the situation that presumably motivated him to accept help from someone a lot worse than an assistant coach.
There’s not a person in the pro or college football worlds who doesn’t have a pretty good idea of what happened: how Tunsil probably grew sick of having to grovel to the assistant, who made him feel like a thief for even asking; the growing awareness of the future awaiting him in the NFL coupled with the need-it-now frustration; the peekaboo teasers of wealth to come and overtures from the “runners” for agents trolling for clients, offering to front him what he needed in exchange for the ability to steer him come draft time; followed by the rage and the threats of exposure when the mutual use fell apart with the arrival of Sexton in Tunsil’s life.
The solution to this dark little revenge tale isn’t another NCAA rule. Nor is it more “institutional control,” as the NCAA likes to put it. Nor is it more lecturing of players on the evils of “advisers” who are unregistered with the NFL Players Association. To a certain extent, young players will always be susceptible to dishonest agents.
“Trust is a hard thing not achieved through a two-hour meeting with someone who sounds and looks good,” Brandt says.
How is anyone supposed to teach a young player what trust and honesty should look like in the current dishonest and hypocritical system? No reform can be meaningful as long as it’s built on top of these underground transactions. The only way to real reform is an above-board free market. Let players earn what they can earn, from their own likenesses and from those who would pay them to play for a university. Let the next Laremy Tunsil say to schools that recruit him, “What kind of terms are you offering?”
Opponents of a free market in college sports say this is a doomsday scenario. But the scenario of doom already exists. Coaches and alumni have created independent funds for supplementing scholarships with cash. There are bidding wars for players and an ever-widening gap between rich schools and poorer ones. All of this already is happening.
To merely formalize it would be healthy, not unhealthy. It would replace dirty money with clean bills and make clear who the real criminals are. It’s not a kid who hits a recreational bong or who seeks decent compensation for the sweat on his back and who, by the way, had the frankness to own that in public without embarrassment. No, it’s the lowlife coward who would hack, threaten and try to extort under the cover of a corrupt system.