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Stop chasing college football autograph scandals

You have better things to do than be the NCAA's investigation arm.

Jeff Gammons

For the second time in less than a week, an autograph scandal involving a potential Heisman candidate has popped up. The word scandal is used loosely here. Neither the case against Todd Gurley nor the report that Jameis Winston has signed a bunch of authenticated autographs have been proven to break any NCAA rules.

The Gurley investigation is well documented. A disgruntled autograph dealer shopped a video of the Georgia star allegedly signing items in a car. That dealer offered no proof of money changing hands, but Georgia suspended Gurley, perhaps based on other evidence.

The Winston investigation is even more ridiculous. ESPN reported that clusters of authenticated Winston autographs may have been signed in sessions with a memorabilia dealer. There's no proof these autographs were signed in sessions, even if it is "likely," nor is there any evidence Winston was paid for his signature.

This report boils down to the following paragraph:

A cursory search on JSA's website found more than 340 certified Winston autographs. An additional search later on Monday revealed 600 more Winston autographs that had been authenticated and logged into the company's website verification system for a total of more than 950 autographs.

This tells you nothing about rules being broken. It tells you there are a bunch of certified Winston autographs on the marketplace that have been authenticated. It does not tell you whether Winston was paid for them. That's left up in the air, in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge way.

Clusters of certified autographs may look suspicious. But looking suspicious isn't against any rules.

And this is the problem with a compulsion to dig up dirt that isn't actually dirt. Anyone can find a piece of certified merchandise and comb through the JSA database, incrementally counting up and down to find sequential signed items to raise suspicion about whether a player was paid to sign during a session. Out of an abundance of caution, compliance departments will investigate these allegations, lending legitimacy to a silly rule and the searches for autographed merchandise that rule leads to.

Autograph investigations then snowball. One disgruntled dealer alleges he paid for a player to sign some memorabilia that was then resold for a profit. Reporters start poking around in authentication databases in an effort to find other clusters of merchandise tied to other players, or fans of the suspended player do the same to show that other star players signed the same stuff. This all happened last season, too.

Doing this for any reason besides showing NCAA hypocrisy is akin to matching stock records to sales records and alleging someone stole something, without any other hard evidence. It's raising a red flag and hoping someone will come forward. Except in one case we're talking about the theft of merchandise. In the other, it's about signatures.

Ask yourself what probing authentication databases accomplishes. It may trigger a suspension as a school investigates the claims and tries to prove something without a paper trail, as is likely Gurley's case. On the off chance it can be proved that a player received a few $100 bills, it could result in a loss of eligibility for a game or two or even a season.

Is it worth it to play cop using circumstantial evidence and enforce rules that only exist in the fantasy world of amateurism created by the NCAA? Or is that time better spent doing literally anything else?