CHICAGO (AP) — We won’t know who won Round 1 of the 2016 NFL draft for a season or two.
But we already know the biggest loser.
That would be Ole Miss and coach Hugh Freeze, who began Thursday ready to celebrate three players being selected in that first round, then ended it by practically inviting NCAA investigators already snooping around campus to open a satellite office there.
At the center of that topsy-turvy evening was Laremy Tunsil, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound left tackle with a checkered past and an uncertain future as the 13th pick of the Miami Dolphins. As he was waiting in the green room with other top prospects just ahead of the start of the draft, a video of Tunsil wearing a gas mask with a bong attached and smoking something, presumably marijuana, was released on his own Twitter account, which he subsequently claimed had been hacked.
Strange as that seemed — and it likely caused Tunsil to drop a half-dozen spots or more — it was only his warm-up act. Not quite two hours later, his Instagram account — which he also said was hacked — served up screen shots of text messages purportedly between Tunsil and an assistant athletic director at Ole Miss in which the player asked for help paying rent and his mother’s utility bills.
If you guessed those might be a violation of NCAA rules, you’re right. Tunsil, who sat out the first seven games of his junior season after the NCAA ruled he received improper benefits — including the use of three loaner cars over a six-month period — probably knew that, too. And keep in mind that Ole Miss has already self-reported a handful of violations and been under scrutiny by NCAA gumshoes long enough for Freeze to liken the process to “a four-year colonoscopy.”
So when Tunsil was asked in his post-draft press conference about whether he took money at Ole Miss, his first response was “Nah, I wouldn’t say that.” But less than a minute later, when the question was asked a second time — “Was it an exchange between you and your coach, for money?” — Tunsil replied, “I’d have to say yeah.”
Then came a follow-up question about the NCAA, but before Tunsil could answer, a woman from the NFL’s PR department slid between Tunsil and the microphone, curtly announced, “He has no more comments,” and shuttled the player out of the room and into another behind closed doors.
There, Tunsil was apparently given a different set of marching orders from representatives of his agent, Jimmy Sexton, who also happens to be the agent for Freeze, as well as newly minted Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase. Talk about coincidence.
Ole Miss teammate Robert Nkemdiche called Tunsil’s drop “heartbreaking,” and he should know. A top-flight defensive tackle, Nkemdiche, like Tunsil, slipped a few rungs down the draft ladder and likely cost himself millions as well. He, too, had a slip-up in his recent past — according to a police report, he fell15 feet out of hotel window while admittedly drunk last December, and a small amount of marijuana was found in his room.
But the Cardinals have drafted players with character issues before — safety Tyrann Mathieu — and it worked out well. And let’s not forget, the Dolphins employed Richie Incognito not that long ago. For all the issues football players bring with them from team to team, Tunsil’s purported pot use and even his admission of under-the-table payments didn’t scare NFL franchises off that much.
Or as Lions general manager Bob Quinn said as the draft drama unfolded, “If we took players off the board because they smoked pot in college or marijuana, half the board would be gone.”
Instead, they’ll be well-paid professionals, at least for a while, whether they pan out long-term or not. At the moment, whatever other labels you apply to players like Tunsil and Nkemdiche, be prepared to add “bargain” to the mix.
Back at Ole Miss, though, depending on what NCAA investigators turn up, the folks may come up with some other names that can’t be reprinted here.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org and Twitter.com/JimLitke.