Allegations of improper benefits ground Georgia’s Gurley

Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley scores in the 4th quarter in front of Tennessee Volunteers defensive back Justin Coleman at Sanford Stadium Saturday September 27, 2014. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley scores in the 4th quarter in front of Tennessee Volunteers defensive back Justin Coleman at Sanford Stadium Saturday September 27, 2014. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM



Running back Todd Gurley, the University of Georgia’s best football player in decades, was suspended indefinitely from competition Thursday by UGA because of “an ongoing investigation into an alleged violation of NCAA rules.”

Multiple people connected with the athletic program told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Gurley is alleged to have violated NCAA rules regarding improper benefits for amateur athletes. The accusation is the result of the alleged sale of memorabilia and/or autographs, the people said.

The suspension came as Gurley has emerged as a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious individual honor in college football. The award is given annually by the Downtown Athletic Club in New York and is selected by a national panel of voters.

“I’m obviously very disappointed,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said in a news release announcing the suspension. “The important thing for our team is to turn all our attention toward preparation for (Saturday’s game at) Missouri.”

Athletic director Greg McGarity declined comment.

Behind Gurley’s prolific season, Georgia is 4-1 this season and is 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference. With a victory Saturday against conference-foe Missouri, Georgia would become a strong contender to play for the SEC championship in December at the Georgia Dome. Without him, Georgia would face a stiff challenge to contend for the SEC title.

If the allegation proves to be true, it would be considered a violation of Gurley’s amateur status as an NCAA athlete and result in his immediate ineligibility to play. That could be for a number of games or the rest of the season, depending on the size and scope of the violation.

Former star UGA receiver A.J. Green received a four-game suspension in 2010 for selling his Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000 to a North Carolina man whom the NCAA considered an agent. Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was investigated for selling autographed memorabilia last year, but it could not be proved that he accepted any money and he was eventually cleared to play, after he sat out half of a game.

The NCAA generally expects a school to suspend a player from competition while eligibility questions are investigated. Otherwise, the school would risk having to forfeit future victories in which that player participated and could face other NCAA penalties. If this investigation finds that Gurley has played since violating an NCAA rule, Georgia could face the possibility of forfeiting past victories.

It’s not uncommon for superstar college athletes to be approached by opportunists looking to benefit from their celebrity. Former Georgia coach Vince Dooley said he was indoctrinated about that when Herschel Walker played for him from 1980-82.

“I was a lot more educated after Herschel,” Dooley said Thursday. “Before him, I was naive about all the things people were trying to get him to do. I learned later that before the Sugar Bowl when we played Penn State some guy got him in the room and wrote him a check for $1 million and handed it to him. He didn’t take it, but he could have. You could imagine that would be on his mind.”

Nine of 10 voters in ESPN’s weekly ranking of Heisman Trophy candidates picked Gurley as the No. 1 choice this week. But any extended absence from the field would effectively end his candidacy. Only two Bulldogs players have won the Heisman Trophy: Frank Sinkwich in 1942 and Walker in 1982.

Gurley, from Tarboro, N.C., is in his third season on Georgia’s football team, becoming a bigger star each season. He gained 1,385 yards rushing as a freshman in 2012 and followed that with 989 during an injury-riddled sophomore season. This season, he has 773 rushing yards through five games — an SEC-leading average of 154.6 per game.

He attracted national attention with his play the past two weeks in particular. On Sept. 27, he leaped over a would-be Tennessee tackler in a play shown countless times on TV. And Saturday, he threw the first pass of his college career — and completed it for a 50-yard gain against Vanderbilt.

Gurley currently ranks second in UGA history in touchdowns with 43 (behind only Walker’s 52) and third in school history in rushing yards with 3,147 (behind Walker’s 5,259 and Garrison Hearst’s 3,232).

Even before the current controversy, Gurley was expected to leave school for the NFL draft after this season.

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