The criminal prosecution of University of Alabama football booster Logan Young has opened a Pandora's box of problems for federal prosecutors, the NCAA, and now it seems even the University of Tennessee and Coach Phillip Fulmer.
Way back in August 2001, U.S. Attorney Terrell Harris and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons held a joint press conference to announce the indictments of high school football coaches Lynn Lang and Milton Kirk.
The prosecutors were going to do nothing less than clean up recruiting in Memphis. "We are sending a clear message that the sale of high school athletes for personal gain will not be tolerated in our community," they said.
So where are we two-and-a-half years later?
Last week, Fulmer was identified as a confidential source in the NCAA's investigation of Alabama, going so far as to secretly tape a potential witness for 90 minutes. Fulmer and UT boosters tattled on Alabama and peddled the story to the media, starting in the summer of 2000. Young's attorneys plan to subpoena Fulmer and his notes, tapes, and records. All over Alabama, fans of the Crimson Tide are howling that Tennessee got a pass from the NCAA on its alleged football program violations in return for "private investigator" Fulmer's cooperation.
On Monday, Young was in court for a brief appearance, vowing a fight to the finish with the best legal defense money can buy. An expensive three-year-old federal investigation is likely to get a lot more expensive, all on the flimsy grounds that high school coaches are "public officials" and that their auction of star player Albert Means was extortion, bribery, and a violation of the laws of interstate commerce.
The latest development in this overblown epic came out of Montgomery, Alabama, this week. Attorney and Alabama partisan Tommy Gallion demanded a congressional investigation of the NCAA investigation of the university. Whether or not he gets one, Gallion will remain Fulmer's and the NCAA's worst nightmare.
Thanks to overzealous prosecutors and Tennessee boosters, stacks of documents and tapes that otherwise would have remained locked up in NCAA files instead became public record and fodder for fresh stories. The NCAA is having to defend itself against charges of favoritism and criminalizing a recruiting investigation. And federal prosecutors got themselves deeply mired in a case that, at best, they will win at trial or, at worst, they will lose or see dismissed.
And all for what? Young was sanctioned two years ago by Alabama and disassociated from the football program. For someone as passionate as he is about Alabama football, that is serious punishment. Lang and Kirk are out of coaching. Means is playing for the University of Memphis. Fulmer faces months of embarrassment, subpoenas, and legal fees and may well have brought an NCAA investigation upon his own program. Reporters and lawyers get a big juicy case to work on.
And football recruiting and "the sale of high school athletes for personal gain" in our community? One well-regarded Memphis high school football coach told a Flyer reporter that corruption is still alive and well in football recruiting. Still, we doubt that many promising linemen these days are fetching $200,000 or $150,000 or whatever combination of cash, cars, and houses Lang plans to allege if and when he finally takes the witness stand against Young.
An NCAA investigation would have accomplished as much. Criminalizing the process was a questionable and apparently unwise decision. On the football field, it's called piling on, and the penalty is 15 yards. In the courtroom, it's called getting the case dismissed before trial. In this case, a lot of people probably are wishing today that it had never gotten to federal court, period.