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New Docu-Series Looks At College Football's Shadowy Economic And Legal System

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's against NCAA rules for high school and college recruits to accept cash gifts or favors. But college football recruiters are notoriously cutthroat, and the kids caught taking advantage of the system are easy targets for NCAA investigators.

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STEVEN GODFREY: I wouldn't be surprised if at every university in the Southeastern Conference, kids were receiving inducements and illegal benefits.

CORNISH: That's Steven Godfrey. He's an alumnus of the University of Mississippi. He's also a sports reporter with SB Nation, and his docuseries is called "Foul Play: Paid In Mississippi." His story starts with Ole Miss suddenly turning into a football powerhouse a few years back. In the cynical world of college football, many fans assumed Ole Miss was cheating somehow. And it wasn't long before the NCAA decided to take a look at the school's unlikely turnaround. Godfrey describes how the investigations work.

GODFREY: Well, basically once the NCAA is on campus, they can pretty much look into anything that they feel like they have the right to peruse, anything where they feel like there's been a wrongdoing or a misgiving. And one of the things that benefits the NCAA is most of the devices and processes they have in place for investigating - they're not transparent. They don't require due process or probable cause or anything like that. Once they're there, they pretty much can have the run of the place.

CORNISH: You describe a full-on microeconomy of college football recruiting. Can you talk about how that plays out, what that means?

GODFREY: It's everything from what we in the South call a hundred-dollar handshake where you actually literally physically hand cash to a student athlete in person to arranging for a part-time job or a full-time job for a family member, helping someone secure a loan for a house. I've heard stories about farming equipment, and I know people might sort of scoff at that. You may not understand how expensive farming equipment is. So it runs the gamut.

CORNISH: So what did this mean for a kid named Leo Lewis? He didn't actually end up going to Ole Miss, right? But in the course of the investigation, he actually did tell the NCAA about the process of his recruitment. And what did he reveal?

GODFREY: Well, Leo Lewis is a common case but with an extraordinary story. He was hotly recruited mainly between the two in-state schools, Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi - Ole Miss - but also schools like Alabama and LSU, you know, traditional big powers. So throughout the course of his recruitment, Leo starts to receive benefits from multiple schools - cash gifts, friends of friends coming in and purchasing things like, you know, groceries for his family. You name it.

When Leo Lewis ultimately does sign with Mississippi State, this is after he's taken cash benefits from multiple boosters representing multiple institutions. The NCAA comes to speak with him but not about Mississippi State but rather the Ole Miss case that they're working on.

CORNISH: We should jump in here and say that Ole Miss and Mississippi State are rivals. And so you have a kid essentially caught between these two huge powerhouses and the NCAA. And of course he's not a professional athlete - right? - so he is not being paid. And what happens to him?

GODFREY: The NCAA tells him, look; we know that you took these benefits. If you talk to us on the record, we will not punish you. We will not revoke your eligibility, which is essentially sort of the one key that these student athletes have - and especially in a case like Leo Lewis - to a professional career and actual real money playing football.

What he told the NCAA specifically about some improper benefits in the form of a couple of T-shirts, some merchandise from the University of Mississippi that was allegedly given to him at an off-campus apparel shop called Rebel Rags - that one fact is leaked to the media. And once that happens, that's enough for Rebel Rags, the business in Oxford, Miss., to file suit against Leo Lewis for disparagement.

CORNISH: And not only do they file suit. They're filing suit for defamation, right? And they want his future earnings.

GODFREY: Right. What they're saying is, hey, we will get you financially if and when you ever become worth anything in the NFL.

CORNISH: This investigation by the NCAA took roughly six years. What does it tell you about these investigations, so to speak? How serious is the NCAA about investigating the student athletes in this way or schools for this behavior?

GODFREY: Well, you know, the core hypocrisy of the NCAA is that they have to promote a model of amateurism, and they want to talk about protecting the student athlete when, in actuality, the NCAA is a billion-dollar business, and they have to justify that business model.

So when you look at incidents at Baylor, where you have a systematic cover up of sexual assaults and you see the NCAA's almost total inaction and you compare it to Ole Miss or the University of Miami a couple of years ago or Southern California where these things happened - when that happens, they leap into action because that violates the bylaw that sort of seals their business model together. The moment that they can't justify their existence and their business structure is when that billion-dollar economy falls apart for them. That's when the labor force can finally wake up and say, hey, we deserve to be compensated as part of this massive structure.

CORNISH: Steven Godfrey - he is a sports reporter with SB Nation. His docuseries is called "Foul Play: Paid In Mississippi." Thank you for speaking with us.

GODFREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.