Declines to discuss off-field image issues
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. -- The Auburn football program has been in the headlines this offseason, not always for the right reasons.
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But given a chance to address the various offseason arrests that led to the dismissal of five players, including four who confessed involvement in an armed robbery, Tigers coach Gene Chizik declined Friday during his first meeting with reporters this spring.
Chizik began his media session by making a statement that he would talk about things having to do with only spring practice and the current football team.
But he still was asked whether he had addressed the remaining players about the offseason arrests. Mike McNeil, Shaun Kitchens, Dakota Mosley and Antonio Goodwin were charged with robbery, burglary and theft of property. They allegedly used multiple handguns to rob a trailer park home south of campus March 11.
“I’m going to talk only about spring practice and our football team and guys that are currently on our team,” Chizik said.
The Tigers’ legal run-ins weren’t the only black eye to a program that, despite its recent national championship, has an image problem.
A website called Sports by Brooks ran objectionable photos of several Auburn football players, presumably pulled off of various social networking sites.
One shows linebacker Daren Bates, running back Onterio McCalebb and safety Neiko Thorpe flashing what might be gang signs to a camera. McCalebb has what appears to be a wad of money in his mouth.
Another photo shows sophomore safety Demetruce McNeal posing with a gun (which does not appear to be real) and a stack of dollar bills in his mouth. Although he didn’t reference the pictures or the website, McNeal responded generally to people drawing conclusions based on images of him on the Internet.
“I just say people don’t know what type of person I am,” McNeal said. “Things from the past, I didn’t know then what I know now. What I did in the past can affect me in the future. Now, I’m mature. I know better now.
“So people watching me, watching what I do, what I say -- they can watch me, they can see things on the Internet, but they don’t know me. They don’t know what type of person I am. Those type of things don’t affect me anyway. So I let those things go in one ear and out the other.”
Auburn’s players didn’t say whether the coaches addressed them about having extra scrutiny, but several said the idea was understood.
“I think that goes for athletes in itself,” defensive lineman Jeffrey Whitaker said. “Like coach Yox (strength coach Kevin Yoxall) always says, ‘Athletes, you’re different.’ So that’s for any team. You’ve got to present yourself as, when you walk out, you represent Auburn and you represent the family and everything.”
Defensive end Nosa Eguae said there aren’t team rules governing the use of social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, so it’s about common sense.
“It’s just be smart,” he said. “Everybody is watching. As far as social networks go, you know what you can have on there and what you can’t.
“You know that fans look at your pages every day, whether it be Twitter or Facebook or whatever it is. It’s just be smart. We’re 18, 19, 20-year-olds and we’re smart enough to know what’s supposed to be on there and what’s not.”
The players don’t expect the added attention to go away, especially after Auburn won the BCS championship last season.
“There’s always going to be eyes watching us,” Whitaker said. “But that’s a good thing, because we’re the top dog.”