USC wide receiver Munir McClain was on his way to an early morning workout Sept. 18 when he was told that coach Clay Helton needed to speak with him in his office.
Two days earlier, Michael Blanton, USC’s vice president of professionalism and ethics, had called McClain to question what he knew about unemployment benefits from California's Employment Development Department. Their conversation took place over two phone calls, and McClain went to physical therapy in between.
In his office that Friday morning, Helton informed the sophomore wide receiver that he was being suspended. McClain still would be able to attend class, receive stipends and meals, rehabilitate his surgically repaired anterior cruciate ligament, and receive coronavirus testing from the university. But he would remain away from the football team until further notice.
A month later, two federal agents were at McClain’s dormitory door and subpoenas were being issued for other USC football players in conjunction with a federal fraud probe. But as questions swirled around the nature of that investigation and McClain’s role in the eyes of investigators, the specific cause for his suspension from USC’s football team remains unclear. In a news conference in front of Galen Center on Sunday, his mother, Shan McClain, and Najee Ali, a local civil rights activist, said that no specific explanation had been given.
“If Munir has done something wrong, please tell him what it is,” Shan said.
Around 8 a.m. on Sept. 18, Helton had called Shan to inform her of the suspension. But, in that call too, few details were offered. According to Shan, Helton said he had received a call from Blanton late the night before. Any questions she had about the suspension, Helton told her, should be directed to Blanton.
So Shan called Blanton, who asked whether she had spoken to her son. Eventually, Blanton would tell her that a complaint was received about USC students being approached to file for EDD. An investigation was opened, and Munir’s name had come up.
“I said, ‘OK, is that why he’s suspended?’ ” Shan recalled to The Times in a phone interview Monday. Blanton redirected her inquiries to Helton.
Shan maintains that she has not been told what sort of violation triggered her son’s suspension, but USC disputed that assertion Sunday in a university statement.
“USC has spoken about this matter with Munir McClain and his mother Shan McClain,” the statement read. “We will not discuss those conversations out of respect for student privacy and due to the pending investigation.”
Asked Monday whether it was protocol for an athlete under university inquiry to be suspended, Helton refused to comment.
The protocols followed to decide McClain’s fate are still unclear. An NCAA spokesperson told The Times that NCAA rules do not cover unemployment benefits. When asked Monday for specifics, the university refused comment.
Blanton’s office, created in 2018, is tasked with monitoring complaints and handling investigations. In June 2019, it was Blanton who wrote in a letter to the U.S. District Court in New York that Trojans basketball assistant Tony Bland "caused significant harm to USC and its student-athletes" when he accepted a bribe in 2017.
According to the website for USC’s Office of Professionalism and Ethics, any results of an investigation conducted by the office are sent to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards. A page describing the office’s “Post-Investigation Process” says the OPE “guarantees a battery of procedural protections for students” under such investigations.
Those listed protections include written notice of a complaint, the right to review any relevant documents or information, the opportunity to be present at the review and present witnesses or evidence, and a formal decision in writing following the investigation.
That degree of transparency has not been afforded to McClain, his family or his legal representation.
The USC student code of conduct notes a similar route to disciplinary action. “In most cases,” it states, a student’s status “will not be altered and disciplinary sanctions will not be implemented” while a case is pending review.
There are exceptions, however, including if the student “poses a substantial threat” or — perhaps, more relevant to McClain’s case — is “under investigation by an outside law enforcement agency.”
The last time Shan spoke with Helton was the day her son’s suspension was announced. Training camp was beginning, and Helton wanted to give her the heads up that her son's status would soon become public.
“He didn’t want to answer any of my questions,” Shan said that day.
With a federal investigation now ongoing, Helton’s hands are tied in that regard. Still, the frustration from the McClain family is palpable. A release announcing Sunday’s news conference said it would be held “in defiance of Clay Helton.”
When pressed about that intention Sunday, Ali said he misspoke.
“It’s not in defiance of Clay Helton,” Ali said. “We’re just trying to work in unity.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.