ATHENS — Since the issue first arose, A.J. Green and Georgia’s football team were unworried. Neither party thought the star receiver’s playing status would be affected by an NCAA inquiry.
But on Wednesday, the hammer came down, in what one of Green’s teammates called “shocking” fashion.
Green, the Bulldogs’ top player, was suspended for four games by the NCAA. Green was found to have sold his Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000 to someone the NCAA later defined as an agent. Green repaid the $1,000 to charity.
Georgia is appealing, but Green cannot play during that process. Since Green already sat Georgia’s season opener, a 55-7 win over Louisiana-Lafayette, he can return for the Bulldogs’ fifth game at Colorado.
If Green serves the entire suspension, the Bulldogs will be without their best player for three SEC games, two of them on the road and two of them against currently ranked opponents (No. 24 South Carolina and No. 14 Arkansas). Green released a statement through the school, expressing contrition and admitting to a “mistake.”
“I want to apologize to my coaches, teammates and the Georgia fans for the mistake in judgment,” Green said in the release. “I very much regret all that has taken place and the distraction that’s been caused. I’ve learned a valuable lesson and hope others can learn from my mistake.
“I can only focus my attention now on practicing and looking ahead to getting back with my teammates as quickly as possible.”
Georgia head coach Mark Richt said he was “disappointed with the outcome” but did not comment on the nature of the penalty or whether he was surprised by it. Richt told the team the news before practice.
“I just told them we’re gonna focus on this game and focus on who’s playing. Then we flexed and went to practice,” Richt said. “We didn’t have a discussion. But I thought they practiced well. I don’t think the news affected them.”
Georgia does get two players back for this week’s game: tailback Washaun Ealey, the team’s leading rusher last season, and receiver Tavarres King, the projected No. 2 receiver.
King called the news “pretty shocking. But really can’t focus on that right now. Everybody’s gotta regroup and focus on the task at hand.”
Richt said at one point in August that he didn’t expect any players to miss games because of the inquiry. Green on several occasions also said he wasn’t worried.
But last week Richt and school officials went into strict no-comment mode. Then two hours before Saturday’s opener, the school announced Green would sit the game “pending a ruling clarifying his status.”
That ruling arrived Wednesday.
“Was I expecting something like this to go down, no, especially not the reason,” tight end Aron White said. “It’s not the reason the NCAA came here in the first place. Nobody could have said they expected the exact event to go down. But whatever happened happened, and we’ve just gotta deal with it.”
Initially, Green appeared to be part of a larger NCAA probe into agents, stemming from a Miami party that reportedly also included players from Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina. But Green said he told Georgia officials he had never been to Miami.
Then, within the past week, reports surfaced that the NCAA was looking into the sale of the jersey. It was not clear whether the recipient of the jersey was an actual agent or representing one.
“According to NCAA rules, an agent is any individual who markets or promotes a student-athlete,” the NCAA said in a release.
NCAA bylaws state that any involvement with an agent makes the case more serious.
Alabama’s Marcell Dareus, who was found to have improper contact with an agent, had his suspension reduced from four games to two. But that successful appeal was announced at the same time as the suspension, unlike in Green’s case.
Green missed three full games last year because of injury, as well as much of the Auburn game. Georgia went 3-1 in those games, the lone loss being 34-27 at home to Kentucky.
“We’re gonna take it like we did at the end of last season,” White said. “You know A.J.’s not out there, we’re gonna go out there and play our game accordingly. He assured us that we have the talent on this team to play with or without him. We’re still Georgia. One player doesn’t make Georgia.”