Nearly seven years have passed since a UNC football player’s tweet launched an investigation into improper benefits from sports agents and a scandal that continues to dog the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
On Monday, in a courtroom in the seat of the county that houses UNC, a Georgia real estate agent accused of violating North Carolina’s sports agent law acknowledged guilt as part of an agreement with prosecutors to defer prosecution in his case.
The agreement with Patrick Jones could soon bring to a close one of the five pending criminal cases resulting from the years-long probe.
If Jones complies with all aspects of the agreement – 48 hours of community service, no criminal charges in the next year and testimony in the case against a Georgia sports agent – the charge against him will be dismissed. Jones did not speak with media gathered outside the courtroom after the brief hearing.
Jones was a longtime associate of Terry Watson, the Georgia-based sports agent who faces 14 felony counts in Orange County – 13 for athlete-agent inducement and one for obstructing justice.
Watson is said to have provided nearly $24,000 to former UNC football players Greg Little, Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn to get them to sign with his agency while they still were college players with the UNC Tar Heels. In his deal with prosecutors, Jones acknowledges that he provided $725 to Quinn in an attempt to get him to sign with Watson.
Watson was in court on Monday but did not speak. Watson’s case is scheduled for a hearing later on Monday, but it was not immediately clear whether there would be a plea in his case.
NCAA rules allow agents to meet with college athletes but forbid the students from entering into contracts, verbal or written, while still eligible to play. Players cannot accept meals, gifts, transportation or other incentives to sign contracts later.
But NCAA regulations govern the athletes and schools, not the agents.
Under North Carolina law, sports agents are required to register with the secretary of state’s office and are prohibited from providing cash and other benefits to student athletes.
In addition to registration, the law requires agents to notify schools immediately when they sign college athletes. The students are given 14 days to change their minds and cancel contracts, and schools have the legal right to sue agents who violate the law – though that option is rarely exercised. Agents who fail to comply can be punished with civil or criminal penalties.
Jones’s case is one in a series that have stemmed from the protracted investigation into the UNC football team.
The inquiry began in 2010 after the NCAA started looking into allegations that players with the North Carolina football program had taken improper benefits from sports agents.
In March 2012, the NCAA issued infractions against UNC’s football program, including three years of probation and a ban on postseason play that year.
The office of the N.C. Secretary of State continued its probe into the improper benefits after the NCAA penalties.
In September 2013, Jones, Watson and three others were indicted in cases likely to test laws in North Carolina and across the country that criminalize most contact between sports agents and college athletes.