Ole Miss’s 38-10 loss at Florida last Saturday was the kind of midseason wake-up call that every good team dreads. It wasn’t just a defeat, it was a disaster — an unexpected, slow-motion train wreck that exposed and exploited every weak link in a lineup that began the night with legitimate championship aspirations.
No link was weaker over the course of the beatdown than the Rebels offensive line. Right from the start — Ole Miss’s first two possessions resulted in a three-and-out and a lost fumble — the front five looked overmatched and out of sync, wholly unprepared for the speed of Florida’s pass rush or the frenzied din of Florida’s home crowd. The Rebels gave up four sacks, committed four turnovers, and didn’t find the end zone until the dying minutes of the blowout, by which point the obituaries for their undefeated season had already been written.
After a performance like that, it’s hard to argue that any one player, even one as highly touted as Ole Miss’s missing left tackle, Laremy Tunsil, could have single-handedly kept the offense from collapsing. If the line wasn’t an obvious liability during the Rebels’ 4-0 start, it certainly looks like one now, and for the foreseeable future.
Be that as it may, Saturday was the first time that Tunsil, who was held out of the first four games and didn’t even make the trip to Gainesville, was truly missed.
Coming into this season, Tunsil was billed as an All-American, a five-star prototype with 20 career starts under his belt — all of them at left tackle, the position he may as well have been born to play — and universally glowing reviews from pro scouts. To the extent that any college offensive lineman can be considered a star, he was. But if one of the marks of a great blocker is his relative anonymity in service of the unit, then Tunsil was arguably more conspicuous in his absence against the Gators than he ever was in the games he’s played.
Nearly halfway through the regular season, Tunsil’s absence is the single thing (including, for now, the win-loss record) driving Ole Miss fans to distraction. Their frustration is palpable and understandable. The vacuum of information — outside of a month-old press release in which the school indicated it was “cooperating fully with the NCAA” in an ongoing inquiry — surrounding the status of a potential top-five NFL draft pick playing on a potential top-10 team has become the most bizarre running subplot of the season.
In that initial release, Tunsil’s absence from the Rebels’ season opener against Tennessee-Martin was described as merely “a precautionary measure.” Nearly five weeks later, though, the public is no closer to knowing precisely why Tunsil was relegated to limbo — one imposed by his own school — when the impasse might be resolved, or when any answers might be forthcoming. Based on his few evasive comments on the subject, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze seems to have only a vague idea of when he expects Tunsil back. Athletic director Ross Bjork has been similarly cagey. When contacted, Bjork said, “Technically, our answer has to be, ‘We’re not allowed to comment.’” The NCAA, as always, is a fortress of solitude when it comes to active investigations, having offered no formal statements, informal statements, or suggestively raised eyebrows.1 At this point, what began as “precaution” seems to have given way to a full-blown bunker mentality on all sides.
An NCAA spokesman I reached out to for this piece did not respond.
In the meantime, Tunsil has been left to stand by silently as one game became two, two games became four, and four games — the worst-case scenario, according to some projections — became five. Now five verges on six. If Tunsil misses this weekend’s date with New Mexico State, half of his junior season will be up in smoke, with no resolution in sight.
“That is the most difficult part, is to see a young man like this as the weeks go by,” Freeze told reporters this week. “He’s handled it as well as anyone could, but at the same time, he’s antsy. He’s just ready for finality to it, as are we. I hope to hear something this week, but I haven’t heard anything to this point. Just hopeful that it can be resolved this week, and we can get him back soon.” Asked about the possibility of Tunsil missing the entire season, Freeze added, “I don’t let my mind go there.”
As the weeks turn into months, there are fewer and fewer places left for the mind to go. In lieu of answers, as one local writer told me, many Ole Miss fans are on the verge of storming the gates of NCAA headquarters. And they don’t understand why coaches and administrators aren’t making more of a public show of pressing for a verdict — after all, when a sidelined All-American is the status quo, even bad news is better than no news. Because from where those fans sit, the silence is deafening.
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The first sign of drama looming over Tunsil’s junior season came in June, when he was arrested following an altercation with his stepfather, Lindsey Miller. Tunsil and Miller mutually agreed to drop domestic violence charges against each another a few weeks later, but not before each gave conflicting reasons for the fight: Tunsil said it started because Miller pushed Tunsil’s mother, while Miller said it stemmed from an argument about Tunsil “riding around with football agents.” That word “agents” got the attention of the NCAA, and although the potential violation in that case (accepting transportation from an agent) is likely too minor to result in an extended suspension,2 the subsequent probe reportedly uncovered a loaner vehicle from an Oxford dealership that Tunsil kept for too long while his car was being repaired.
NCAA athletes are allowed to have contact with agents, as long as they don’t agree to sign with said agent or accept money or gifts. Accepting transportation is technically a violation, but the standard penalty amounts to paying back the cost of mileage.
Other “improper benefits” may be in play in the investigation as well, but, to date, the loaner is the only specific benefit identified in any report and appears (based on what we know so far, which may not be very much) to be the main sticking point.
How bad is that? NCAA bylaws judge the severity of what it calls “post-enrollment prize money” on a sliding scale based on how much money is involved. For benefits valued at $100 or less, the athlete can simply repay the money with no further penalty. For benefits valued from $100 to $400, the penalty is repayment plus a suspension for 10 percent of his or her team’s regular-season games in the subsequent season. From $400 to $700, the suspension increases to 20 percent of games; above $700, the suspension increases to 30 percent of games. In a 12-game football season, that comes to four games.
In practice, the NCAA has handed down only two four-game suspensions to high-profile football players in the past five years, both from Georgia. In 2010, A.J. Green was forced to sit out the Bulldogs’ first four games after selling a jersey for $1,000, and last year Todd Gurley was docked four games at midseason for accepting $3,000 in cash over two years in exchange for autographs. In both of those cases, the NCAA formally announced the duration of the suspensions and set firm return dates after the first game served.
If necessary, the bylaws also give the reinstatement staff the authority to turn the screws a little tighter if it sees fit (emphasis added):
In addition, in cases where the impermissible prize money greatly exceeds $700, the committee directed the reinstatement staff to consider whether additional withholding, including permanent ineligibility, is appropriate.
The most recent high-profile case in which that clause applied involved the four Ohio State players (including quarterback Terrelle Pryor) who were docked five games apiece to open the 2011 season as punishment for selling championship rings, jerseys, and other memorabilia and for receiving discounted tattoos.
In that case, the fifth game was tacked on in exchange for allowing the suspended players to play in Ohio State’s next game, which happened to be the 2010 Sugar Bowl; the Buckeyes preferred to sit for an additional game the following fall, rather than miss a BCS bowl. The sanctions were announced publicly, more than eight months before they were served.3
Pryor dropped out of school and entered the supplemental draft the following summer; still, his suspension was weirdly enforced by the NFL for the first five games of his pro career.
Earlier in 2010, there was also the wide-ranging scandal that rocked North Carolina, in which 13 players were held out of the season opener for various violations. Of those 13, three (future draft picks Marvin Austin, Greg Little, and Robert Quinn) were eventually declared ineligible and booted from the team for allegedly accepting more than $5,000 apiece from agents and lying to investigators. Among the remaining players, the most severe suspension was given to cornerback Kendric Burney, who lost six games for allegedly accepting $1,333 from the same former UNC player who paid $1,000 for A.J. Green’s jersey. Again, Burney’s suspension (among others) was announced after two games. The following year, fallout from the Nevin Shapiro scandal at Miami resulted in a six-game suspension for defensive end Olivier Vernon, alleged recipient of $1,200 worth of meals, transportation, and so forth. His penalty, along with lesser Shapiro-related suspensions for teammates, was announced before the 2011 season opener.
The amount of money in those cases varies pretty significantly, as long as you ignore that even on the high end $5,000 doesn’t amount to life-changing graft. (We’re definitely operating on the scale of what college kids who have never had a real job think of as a lot of money.) What they all have in common is a relatively fast turnaround: Not one of the players mentioned above missed more than two games before he learned his fate. You could even argue that that’s two games too many.
What sets Tunsil’s case apart, and what makes it so maddening for everyone involved, isn’t just that he’s a headlining talent on a team with playoff potential, or that his absence has already surpassed all but the decade’s most egregious offenders over what seems like a fairly pedestrian violation. It’s the waiting.
If the NCAA has seen enough in the course of a three-month investigation to justify a half-season suspension (or longer), what’s stopping it from making an announcement this time that has never stopped it before? Until there are answers, leaving Tunsil to twist in the wind will continue to seem arbitrary and petty. And when the answers do come, they had better be pretty good.
For his part, Tunsil has also been silent, kept as far as possible from reporters and any other conceivable public stage, save for milling around the sideline during home games. The exception is his Twitter feed, where he has said next to nothing himself, but where he spent much of September holding marathon retweet sessions, broadcasting the frustration and well wishes of hundreds of fans via the #FreeTunsil hashtag. These retweets definitely are endorsements. Individually, each one is like a casual fist bump, a fleeting token of solidarity. Collectively, with Tunsil’s stamp of approval, they read more like the crowdsourced version of the public statement he hasn’t yet given.
It would be easy to turn this into a finger-wagging critique of the NCAA, yet another in a long line of jeremiads against the antiquated notion of “amateurism” and the insidious economics of an industry that reaps hundreds of millions in revenue while simultaneously treating athletes as borderline criminals for accepting a few bucks for an autograph or a free lunch. The whole process is infantilizing. Tunsil is 21, an adult in every legal sense, and in a saner system he’d probably already be learning the ropes as a full-fledged professional while earning the salary that goes along with it.
As it stands now, as a de facto semipro, he should be entitled, if not to an actual salary from the school,4 then at least to pocket some of the money flowing though certain avenues — endorsements, memorabilia sales, royalties from video game sales, etc. — open to virtually every other American without any hint of controversy or moral peril whatsoever. All of the standard anti-NCAA boilerplate applies, and if you’re the sort of person who thinks guaranteed first-rounders like Tunsil and Leonard Fournette would be better off suspending their careers until draft day, maybe that’s where the argument stops.
Which is debatable: Ole Miss’s athletic department claimed $75.9 million in revenue in 2014, according to USA Today, and paid out barely 10 percent of that ($7.7 million) in athletic scholarships.
For college fans, though, there’s also something to be said for the basic impulse of wanting to see the best players play while they still can. In Tunsil’s case, there’s a lot more at stake for both him and his team than his own pro prospects. The blowout loss at Florida notwithstanding, Ole Miss still has an impressive win at Alabama on its résumé and plenty of opportunities to climb back into the playoff discussion against the rest of the SEC West. Potentially redeeming tilts against Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State all lie ahead on the other side of nonconference dates with New Mexico State and Memphis. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Rebels an 8.5 percent chance of winning out, the best percentage of any team in the SEC. Assuming Tunsil is still likely to be reinstated, when word finally comes down confirming his return, that number will only edge upward.
“It will be a big deal,” said senior Fahn Cooper, who has shifted from right tackle to left in Tunsil’s stead. “It will give a lot of guys confidence because they know, ‘Oh, man, he’s a really good player.’ A lot of people may have forgot, but he’s pretty good.”