INDIANAPOLIS | Former South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders admitted Friday that he lied to the NCAA and accepted gifts from a person the NCAA classifies as a “runner” for an agent.
Saunders spoke at the NFL Combine, where he is trying to rehabilitate his reputation and make a good impression on the teams that potentially will determine his football future. Part of the process will include explaining his past and why he was unable to play his senior season for the Gamecocks.
Saunders said he believes being untruthful with the NCAA and South Carolina officials was the reason he was dismissed from the team in September, but his original transgression appears to be a relationship with a person he characterized as a regular around the Gamecocks football program.
“I believe I violated some NCAA policies, such as the people I was associating myself with,” he said. “One guy I thought was a friend at South Carolina, who I won’t name, turns out he was a runner for an agent, and I didn’t know. (I was) taking trips with people I didn’t know exactly what they did.”
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The person whom the NCAA classified as a runner — an intermediary between a player and agent who hopes to benefit financially when the player turns pro — also knows other current and former USC players, Saunders said.
“Yeah, a lot of guys knew who he was,” he said. “He was a big face around campus. He was who we called a friend.”
Saunders didn’t know if the person provided improper benefits to other Gamecocks. He also did not say what he received from the person.
“He still denies he’s a runner,” Saunders said. “The NCAA classified him as a runner, though. Yeah, he paid for things, just as any friend would. I paid for things for him, but obviously that wasn’t what was being investigated. Never mind that four years ago, before I even got to South Carolina, I was friends with him and we would go to McDonald’s and stuff and I would pay for it.”
South Carolina received a letter of inquiry from the NCAA in the fall notifying the school it was investigating possible wrongdoing in the athletics department. Saunders doesn’t believe the Gamecocks will be punished greatly for his transgressions, partly because he was dismissed from the team, he said.
Saunders said he gave the NCAA misleading information during his initial two interviews in Columbia.
“That was completely out of fear,” he said. “There is no excuse for lying, but being scared of the whole situation and knowing what happened to Dez Bryant and how his season was taken away, I panicked.”(The former Oklahoma State wide receiver was suspended much of his senior season in 2009 for lying to NCAA officials.)
Part of the reason Saunders lied was to protect his friends, he said. One of those friends was former North Carolina defensive end Marvin Austin, who also was suspended for the season for potentially improper dealings with agents.
“The second (interview), they said they were going to meet with me on Friday, Aug. 13, and they actually came two days early, and I didn’t have any representation or anything,” Saunders said. “There is no excuse for lying, but I did panic again, and I did withhold some information. It felt like they were investigating a murder almost because they came in in the middle of the summer in a hot room at the Carolina Inn Motel and pretty much put two recorders in my face and just started drilling me on questions. I was in there for almost four hours the first time and the second time.”
NCAA officials told Saunders he would have missed “one or two games” had he told them the truth immediately, he said.
The NCAA was mostly interested in two summer trips Saunders took, he said, one to Atlanta and one to Washington, D.C. Austin was on at least one of those trips, Saunders said. Austin and Saunders were barred from talking to each other during the investigation, Saunders said.
Saunders said a friend, whom he did not name, paid for his trip to Washington, D.C.
“All the other trips, I paid my own ticket,” he said.
Saunders said he stayed at a W Hotel on one of the trips and a Radisson on another. A room at the W Hotel in Washington, D.C., starts at $489 a night, according to the hotel’s website.
“I guess it looks bad,” he said. “A college player is not supposed to make trips on the weekend, I guess.”
In October, Saunders flew to Indianapolis to meet with NCAA investigators at their downtown headquarters in an attempt to get back in their good graces.
“They said nobody had ever done that before,” he said. “I told them everything they asked. I told them everything they wanted to know just to see if there was anything I could do to get back on the field.”
Saunders said he was just as relentless in his effort to change the mind of USC athletics director Eric Hyman.
“I met Mr. Eric Hyman four or five times, and he pretty much said that I was the cause of the whole university being investigated, compliance and other athletes,” Saunders said. “It basically started around me. At the end of the day, I don’t want to say I was the scapegoat, but (Hyman said) it was me that caused all that hoopla, so they were less inclined to allow me back on the team as (they would have been for) another player.
“I can understand where he is coming from. I think he did what he had to do for the betterment of the team and the athletic program.”
Hyman declined to comment on Saunders’ remarks, a school spokesperson said.
Saunders said he tried until the end the season to get back on the team.
“My last conversation with (coach Steve) Spurrier was pretty much asking what could I do to get back on the team,” Saunders said. “I didn’t care if I played one game. I just wanted to get back out there and experience what my teammates were experiencing. He said he wished me the best. He would try to do whatever he could to help me out but, at the end of the day, it wasn’t his call. The athletic director made the decision, and I had to move on from that.”
The Gamecocks’ best moments became Saunders’ worst.
“The lowest point probably was when we beat Alabama,” he said. “We beat the No. 1 team in the country. I was there, and I wasn’t part of it. To see how excited my teammates were, that just hurt.”