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Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton isn't the only Heisman Trophy contender who has caught the attention of NCAA investigators this season.
WW has learned star University of Oregon running back LaMichael James was also under scrutiny this month by university officials and the NCAA. The reason: James was spotted driving a new vehicle—a 2003 Range Rover.
Questions about how James acquired his white luxury ride prompted Angie Cretors, NCAA assistant director for agent, gambling and amateurism activities, to fly to Portland to investigate. She met early this month with Pernell Brown, a local gang-outreach worker who describes himself as James' "uncle."
When asked for specifics, Brown explains he's more like a friend of the family who looks after the 21-year-old sophomore from Texarkana, Texas.
Brown says James, a leading contender for the Heisman and a key to Oregon's national title hopes with two regular-season games remaining, called him in October. Brown says James told him someone was stalking him and leaving notes on his car—a red 2000 Ford Mustang with James' initials and his jersey number, 21, affixed to the side window.
Brown—a former Woodlawn Park Blood who served seven years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon—says he suggested trading cars with James. Brown says he bought his 2003 Range Rover this year. Sales records show he paid $17,238 cash to M&R Auto Sales in Northeast Portland. Brown says a finance company provided the money, and he leases the SUV from the company.
Brown says the trade with James was temporary and intended only to protect James from a stalker. "It didn't even matter what type of car it was," Brown says. "He didn't care."
Soon both the NCAA and UO were probing where James had acquired the vehicle. Brown met with the NCAA's Cretors and with Bill Clever, the school's assistant athletic director for compliance, in Brown's Northeast Portland office this month.
Brown says they asked about his relationship with James and examined Brown's purchase order for the Range Rover. He says Clever and Cretors left the meeting convinced nothing improper had occurred.
The NCAA is staying mum.
"It is NCAA policy not to comment on current, pending or potential investigations," Stacey Osburn, a spokeswoman at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, told WW by email.
But Dave Williford, a spokesman for the UO athletic department, says school officials believe James has already been cleared by the NCAA. "To my understanding, they think everything is fine," Williford says.
For UO, heading into its game Nov. 26 against Arizona, the stakes in the case couldn't be higher.
Under NCAA rules, college athletes are barred from receiving improper benefits—anything above what other students at the school would expect.
TRADING CARS: Pernell Brown poses with his Range Rover (left) before lending it to LaMichael James. Photo: Courtesy Pernell Brown) Now Brown drives James' Mustang (right). Photo: James Pitkin
Gifts from sports agents are specifically forbidden, and Clever says receiving a vehicle from an agent could potentially make a player ineligible. For his part, Brown tells WW he is not a sports agent, has never met an agent and has no desire to become one.
"I have never bought LaMichael a pair of shoes, jeans, anything," Brown says. "I don't have the money."
The fact that UO and the NCAA investigated the matter together highlights the gravity of the case. The school receives roughly 100 complaints about athletes each year, Clever says.
But Clever says in his 12 years at the school, the NCAA has jumped in only a handful of times to help with the school's initial investigation, as it did in this case. The agency does so only when the player is high-profile or the stakes are especially high, Clever says.
News of the probe comes in the home stretch of the top-ranked Ducks' undefeated season and brings to mind two other investigations. First on the list is the ongoing inquiry into Auburn's Newton and allegations his family tried to peddle him to school recruiters for as much as $180,000.
And in September, former University of Southern California running back Reggie Bush had to give back his 2005 Heisman for taking money from an agent when he was in college.
The NCAA didn't limit the heat to Bush, putting USC's entire football team on probation in June and banning it from bowl games for two seasons as well as taking away 30 scholarships over the next three seasons.
Coach Chip Kelly suspended James from this season's opening game against the University of New Mexico after James pleaded guilty last March to a misdemeanor harassment charge stemming from an altercation with an ex-girlfriend. In November, James made the Pac-10 all-academic team with a 3.01 GPA in sociology.