By Aaron Brenner Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
AUBURN, Ala. — A report published Wednesday by Selena Roberts, a former Sports Illustrated and New York Times reporter, took more than 4,000 words to lob exhaustive charges toward the Auburn football program.
Multiple quoted ex-Tigers required much less verbiage to swiftly condemn how their remarks were used contextually in response.
“I can’t,” said former defensive back Neiko Thorpe, asked to make sense of the report as one of six former Tigers quoted. “I’m just trying to clear my name up and let Auburn fans and Auburn nation know the things that were said in that report were not my words.”
The narrative “Auburn’s Tainted Title: Victims, Violations and Vendettas” was posted Wednesday by Roopstigo.com. Roberts, the website’s founder and CEO and an Auburn graduate, is notable for previous SI and NYT work on Alex Rodriguez’s steroid usage and the Duke lacrosse team’s sexual assault scandal of 2006.
Wednesday’s report focuses on former Auburn safety Mike McNeil, who faces robbery charges stemming from a March 2011 arrest, two months after Auburn won the BCS national championship.
McNeil’s family presents its description of the circumstances involving McNeil’s role in the incident, including an account of Auburn University’s and then-head coach Gene Chizik’s handling of the matter.
The report went on to allege academic fraud, pay-for-play incentives and positive drug testing via conversations with players, both named and unnamed.
Former Auburn players Thorpe, Daren Bates, Mike Blanc, Darvin Adams and Antoine Carter are quoted in the story along with McNeil.
Thorpe, entering his second year with the Kansas City Chiefs and the only active NFL player of the bunch, told the Ledger-Enquirer Wednesday night he spoke with Roberts “a couple weeks ago” and was misled as to the article’s intent.
“She explained to me she was doing a story on Mike McNeil, and basically it was a story trying to be good information about him, just telling what a good person he was,” Thorpe said. “She told me she was just trying to do a good story on Mike — a character story, letting people know what kind of person he was.”
Thorpe — who said he hasn’t kept in touch with McNeil while focusing on his NFL career — denounced Roberts’ use of multiple quotes.
Adams said he was offered an undisclosed amount of “financial incentives,” and McNeil said he was given $500 to “entertain blue-chip (recruit) Dre Kirkpatrick.” (Kirkpatrick signed and plays for Alabama.) Thorpe was quoted as saying “A special recruit was treated like a king.”
Thorpe told the Ledger-Enquirer, “I was talking to her about recruits, and she asked me personally about my recruiting process. I let her know that you can’t just base your recruiting off just a visit – you’ve got to look at other things, such as being around the players, because that’s who you’re going to be around the most, and not just the coaching, because coaches can switch up at any time or any year. So that’s why going through my recruiting process I chose Auburn.”
In the framework of Roberts describing the university’s “underground society beneath the NCAA’s radar”, Thorpe was quoted as saying “Auburn does whatever Auburn wants.”
To that, Thorpe rebuked, “No. I don’t recall saying that. I don’t even know what kind of question would make me say that.”
The opening segment details a timeline presented by McNeil’s mother and grandfather the afternoon of March 11, 2011, when Chizik kicked McNeil and three teammates off the team for robbery charges. A starting safety for the championship squad, McNeil has maintained his innocence throughout, awaiting his trial scheduled to begin Monday — though the Opelika-Auburn News reported Wednesday his attorney, Ben Hand, has filed to withdraw from representation.
According to Roberts, coaches told Auburn players they could lose their scholarship if they contacted any of the accused players. Thorpe was quoted as saying, “Mike was like a brother. I wanted to talk to my brother. I’m sure with all that was going on, he felt betrayed.”
Thorpe said he was napping when Roberts’ report came out, and after an evening workout was stunned to be made aware of how his interview was used.
“She just took what I said, I guess, and tried to … make it to a story she wanted,” Thorpe said, “because it wasn’t even the story she told me what she was reporting about. It was kind of crazy when I had a chance to read it and see what she put wasn’t true.”
Thorpe was named Auburn’s “Defensive Most Valuable Player” in 2011. He was bestowed that same year with the Shug Jordan Award, which reads, “Down through the years, outstanding Auburn football players have become outstanding citizens. Knowing this truth, and having a deep abiding faith in these men, I am proud to honor Auburn University’s outstanding senior football player with this award.”
Asked if he had any reason to scathe his alma mater, Thorpe insisted, “I don’t. That’s why I’m trying to clear my name up because I had a great time at Auburn my four years, and I have memories I’ll never forget.”
An Auburn spokesperson stated to the Ledger-Enquirer on behalf of the athletic department, “We will not have a comment regarding the claims in the story.”
Chizik, Auburn University and Auburn police all declined to comment.
Former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (now Florida’s head coach) is reported to have offered McNeil $400 cash after a 2007 practice. A Florida spokesperson Wednesday evening reiterated the university’s denial of Muschamp’s alleged payment from the article.
Bates, who graduates this year, had only one quote in the report, regarding McNeil: “He was the best teammate you could imagine. He took me under his wing. He would draw up defenses. And we’d watch film. He was a mentor to everyone.”
Bates initially responded to a Twitter follower’s question about Roberts, “I don’t even know who that is.” An hour later, Bates tweeted, “The one thing that is quoted by me is what I said, no more no less..END OF STORY”
Roberts made other allegations leading up to the 2010 season, including:
—Three players were told before the BCS championship victory over Oregon that up to nine teammates would be ruled academically ineligible, including star running back Michael Dyer, before unnamed school counselors fixed transcripts to keep them on the field. Said Blanc, “We thought we would be without Mike Dyer because he said he was one of them, but Auburn found a way to make those dudes eligible.”
—Several players indicated Chizik asked them to cut their dreadlocks in fear of being targeted by police.
—A trailer home on Wire Road was a frequent source of synthetic marijuana distributed to players, the scene of the crime scene involving McNeil, Antonio Goodwin (since found guilty and jailed 15 years), Dakota Mosley and Shaun Kitchens. The article stated “more than 40 players tested positive for recreational drugs after the national championship.”
A couple hours after the article’s release, Blanc tweeted, “Man this article is outrageous and isn’t true. The media will do anything for a juicy story smh #sad”
This is not Roberts’ first story regarding Auburn football. In January 2005 — shortly following Auburn’s undefeated season led by then-coach Tommy Tuberville — she penned a New York Times article reporting team chaplain Chette Williams (still working for the Auburn support staff) was paid by boosters in addition to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.