A sign of the times

By Kevin Scarbinsky
Updated: July 22, 2010

ALABAMA — What do Marcell Dareus, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Jerrell Harris and Andre Smith have in common?

At various times during the past two seasons, they’ve all worn crimson. And they’ve all made the NCAA see red.

They’ve been rated and celebrated as some of the best recruits and/or players in the nation. And, with the exception of Dareus — whose time may be coming — they’ve all been declared ineligible for what they’ve done off the field.

Smith missed the 2009 Sugar Bowl, which should’ve been his final college game. Harris sat out six games last year. Ingram and Jones weren’t reinstated for the 2009 opener until 72 hours before.

Their problems, from improper dealings with an agent to the receipt of impermissible benefits, aren’t as troubling as the pattern.

Those players all helped put Alabama on top of the division, the conference and the country, but at some point, each and every one of them made a decision that put his college football future and his program at risk.

Do you blame them or a system in which the players do the heavy lifting and the coaches get paid large?

Do you fault the people outside the program who offered or provided what the NCAA considers extra benefits or the players who accepted them?

Do you ever wonder if investigations have to come with the territory for a big-time football program? Do you even care as long as, somewhere in between the deep-sea fishing trips and South Beach parties, your players get to raise the crystal football?

Dareus, Alabama’s best defensive player, may not miss a down of football this season.

Multiple sources told me that he’s told the school two important things: He didn’t know the May party he and other players from other schools attended in South Beach was thrown by an agent, and he was the only Alabama player there.

For his sake, and Alabama’s, he better be telling the truth.

Harris can explain the consequences if he isn’t.

There’s a larger truth here, and in some ways, it’s more disturbing than the run of Alabama players that got arrested during Nick Saban’s first year on the job.

Despite the Pacific Institute classes and the Peer Intervention Group and the agent education program, despite all the tools and resources that Alabama provides its players, some of the program’s more prominent names have managed to push the envelope between right and wrong in the NCAA’s eyes.

Why the disconnect?

Saban was in midseason form Wednesday at SEC Media Days on the question of rogue agents. The more he warmed to the subject, the hotter he got, until he finally erupted with this bit of molten lava.

“How are they any better than a pimp?”

His analogy may have been a bit off — if some agents are pimps, are the players who deal with them prostitutes? — but his tone was right on.

Now, where was the fire and brimstone for the wayward players?

Saban did acknowledge their responsibility, but he also absolved them to a degree. He called the exchange of extra benefits between agents and college athletes “entrapment of young people at a very difficult time in their life.”

Entrapment? If it takes one person to set a trap, it takes another to fall into it. Are these players, these young people, so poor in finances, judgment and willpower that they can’t help themselves?

Saban himself can be a powerful force for change, especially as the leader of a program that’s traveled from cheater to champion. His passionate remarks about the need for the NFL Players Association to police rogue agents — or else — were a good start.

Trouble is, as long as the NCAA clings to its outdated and unjust notion of amateurism, as long as there are billion-dollar TV deals, million-dollar coaching contracts and penniless players, this kind of story won’t stop.

At Alabama and beyond.