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The NCAA's Four-Game Suspension of the Georgia Bulldogs' A.J. Green Was Unjustified Overkill

I want to apologize to my coaches, teammates, and the Georgia fans for the mistake in judgment. I very much regret all that has taken place and the distraction that's been caused. I've learned a valuable lesson and hope others can learn from my mistake. I can only focus my attention now on practicing and looking ahead to getting back with my teammates as quickly as possible.

A.J. Green

As you heard first right here at Dawg Sports, A.J. Green has been suspended for four games as a condition of the reinstatement of his collegiate eligibility. Here’s the thing, though: I’m not convinced A.J. is the one who owes anyone an apology.

Earlier today, before the bad news broke, I called this a witch hunt, and subsequent events have done little to persuade me that this characterization is unwarranted.

Yes, he sold a jersey, and, yes, he sold it to someone who meets the NCAA’s definition of an agent, but meeting the NCAA’s definition of an agent and being what a reasonable human being would call an agent are two different things. It’s not at all clear whether this was an agent per se, and I’m missing the significance of that fact even if he was.

It’s one thing for an agent to pay for a college athlete to fly to Miami and be plied with alcohol at a party; the benefits, and the impropriety thereof, are obvious. The problem with A.J. Green selling a jersey he wore in a game, however, is that he’s profiting from his celebrity in a way the NCAA deems impermissible. Whether the purchaser was a sports agent, an orthodontist, or an overzealous fan hoping to surprise his kid with an extra-special birthday gift ought to be immaterial. It was hardly an act of subterfuge to conceal the transfer of cash from an agent to a 2011 first-round draft pick if an agent---or someone connected to someone the NCAA says meets the definition of an agent---paid for a valuable item the price the market would bear, and I know more than a few Georgia fans who would drop that kind of cash for a jersey A.J. Green wore in a bowl game.

What ought not to be immaterial, on the other hand, is the fact that Green appears to have been entirely forthcoming and completely vindicated in the investigation that placed him in the NCAA’s crosshairs in the first place. Mark Schlabach reported that Green was cooperative and honest with the authorities; the fact that Mark Richt has been nothing but supportive of his star player, after having earlier in the year booted his would-be starting quarterback from the squad after the signal caller failed to come clean with his head coach, appears to confirm this.

Green’s candor has been on display from the outset. His statement regarding the infamous soiree in South Beach was utterly unequivocal, his alibi was verified independently, and his desire to speak in his own defense was quite clear. Everything we know indicates that Green engaged in a single arm’s-length business transaction, had nothing to do with an agent in any circumstances in which the agent’s status as such was relevant, donated the profits to charity, and answered all questions truthfully.

Thus far this young season, the NCAA is the MVP of the SEC, at least insofar as the hectoring busybodies in Indianapolis are affecting the outcomes of games. The absence of the North Carolina players sidelined by the agent scandal almost certainly made the difference in the Tar Heels’ down-to-the-wire loss to an underperforming LSU squad, while preseason No. 1 Alabama has not been helped in its efforts to reload defensively by the two-game suspension levied against Marcell Dareus. One of the most significant showdowns in the long history of the Georgia-South Carolina series will be marred by the absence of marquee players on both sides.

To some extent, this is warranted, although there appears to have been more wrongdoing in Chapel Hill than in Athens, Columbia, and Tuscaloosa combined. Even in SEC country, the punishments appear disproportionate. Dareus had a four-game suspension reduced to two games after receiving approximately $1,800 worth of benefits in the form of air fare, lodging, meals, and transportation during two separate trips to Miami. While he pled ignorance---a tough sell, considering the two trips---and came clean, the fact is that Dareus had twice as many incidents involving contacts with agents, received roughly twice as much in financial benefits, and had far more extensive involvement in the activity that spawned this entire investigation . . . yet he received exactly the same original punishment, which later was cut in half.

That is not to say that the NCAA went too easy on Marcell Dareus; the Crimson Tide defensive lineman very well may have been subjected to reasonable sanctions. Assuming, probably safely, equal degrees of honesty on the part of both players, Marcell Dareus’s situation looks a good deal more fishy, and A.J. Green’s error was much more minor. Do we even know he knew he was dealing with an agent---or an associate of someone meeting the NCAA’s definition of an agent---when he sold the jersey? Unlike the NCAA, the Georgia receiver has no background in investigating such matters; he’s A.J. Green, not A.J. Simon, and, as EricBDawg astutely pointed out, the NCAA says "[t]he university declared the student-athlete ineligible" and the suspension is based upon "the facts of the case submitted by Georgia." All appearances are that Georgia and Green were cooperative and candid.

That is not to say, of course, that A.J. Green did nothing wrong; he sold a jersey he should not have sold, whether to an agent or to anyone else, and he knew better. That rule is a rule, and, while reasonable arguments may be made against its existence, it exists, and it was violated. There have to be consequences for that.

What ought not to be lost in all of this, though, is that all this began because of a party in Miami . . . and the NCAA appears to have turned up nothing on that front, probably because there was nothing for the NCAA to turn up on that front. Various other rumors have circulated, about insurance policies and suchlike, and there appears to have been nothing to any of that. The NCAA interviewed Green in July and has kept him twisting in the wind for weeks on end while the organization tried to justify this massive expenditure of effort, all to uncover a single sale of one lousy Independence Bowl jersey.

A mistake---a mistake; one; uno---was made, the money was paid back, and he sat out for one game. That is a punishment proportional to the affront, particularly if Marcell Dareus got a two-game suspension for twice as many contacts and twice as much profit. Benching A.J. Green for two games would be a stretch, but at least it could be argued with a straight face that it’s reasonable.

A four-game suspension, however, is unfair, disproportionate, and overkill. The NCAA is punishing Green as though he did the things he was accused of doing and that the investigation leaves us to conclude he did not do. As with the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end of last year’s LSU game, Green has been flagged for an offense the replay does not show. This is not justifiable, and this should not stand.

A.J. Green doesn’t owe Bulldog Nation an apology. The NCAA does.

Go ‘Dawgs!