Embattled quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is reportedly in the clear, legally, and just earned his degree. It's looking increasingly likely he'll be back on the field this fall, at Ole Miss. But there's still the matter of rehabbing his reputation as a "thug" (or a clown, if you prefer) who very nearly threw his career away not once but twice in a little under six months. That kind of rehab requires a little more effort, and more than a little media magic.
Sports Illustrated obliged Thursday with a lengthy, sympathetic profile. It details the web of deceit that led the former Oregon star to plead guilty to a campus robbery earlier this year, despite Masoli's insistence that he was welcomed in and didn't take anything from the frat house in question. The other half of the campaign is a personal apology to "family, friends and fans" on Masoli's website (apparently created for the purpose of posting the apology), accompanied by laudatory quotes from Masoli's junior college coach and a Supreme Court judge in Hawaii below a picture of Masoli hugging his grandmother.
The SI profile, written by Michael McKnight, goes into Masoli's background, including his initial recruitment by the likes of Harvard and Yale before he was expelled from a private high school in San Francisco following a robbery arrest that Masoli (then 16) and another eyewitness describe today as "wrong place, wrong time." But the bulk of the piece is devoted to examining the guilty plea that cost Masoli an entire season at Oregon – again, essentially arguing that the entire affair is a case of "wrong place, wrong time," with a heaping of calamitous decision-making in the aftermath.
Masoli's version of the night in January, according to SI, is this: a) He randomly ran into teammate Garrett Embry, whom he didn't know that well, outside a frat house as Masoli and his cousin were pulling into a bar across the street. (Phone records show he and Embry hadn't had any previous contact). Embry convinced Masoli to check out a party at the house while his cousin went on to the bar; b) He stood outside an open room in the house as Embry entered and then emerged with a projector; c) They started to leave the house, Masoli empty-handed and Embry trying to conceal the projector, and ran into a student coming up a stairwell as they were coming down; the student recognized the projector as his, and Embry took off. d) Outside, Masoli headed to the bar to join his cousin as the student from the stairwell chased Embry in another direction; e) After being definitively ID'd to police by the same guy who'd chased Embry, he lied to both police and coach Chip Kelly, telling both he hadn't been in the house at all.
Police never recovered either of the laptops or the guitar reported stolen, despite searches of Masoli's car and apartment, and the dumpster behind his apartment. Nothing in the 52-page police report contradicts Masoli's claim that he left empty-handed. (The student who reported the robbery tells SI, "By his version he didn't steal anything, and by mine it's not clear that he did.") But based on the positive ID by the accuser, security footage showing Masoli walking into the nearby bar minutes after the 911 call and Masoli's initial lie that he hadn't been in the house, the prosecution went ahead with charges. With the circumstantial evidence against him, Masoli and his family decided that being found guilty at trial – possibly going to prison – was too much to risk:
[Defense attorney John] Kim and Masoli were offered a deal. If Masoli pleaded guilty to burglary two -- a felony that the D.A. promised to treat as a misdemeanor -- he would get a year of probation, and he and Embry would split the $5,000 restitution to be paid to the victims. "But the biggest factor," Linda Masoli [Jeremiah's mother] says, "was if you lose [at trial] -- and, by the way, the D.A. wins a high percentage of their cases -- your son is facing a mandatory sentence of two to four years in prison."
Like his son, Kennedy Masoli projects a stolid Samoan stoicism. That wall crumbles as he and Linda recall the weekend in March when Jeremiah drove home to Daly City to decide with his family whether to plead guilty to burglary. ...
"We changed our mind in our bedroom with our son at least six times," Linda recalls. "Just back and forth -- a lot of tears, a lot of praying as a family, together, and ultimately Jeremiah was the one who said, 'Football's one thing, this is my life. Prison? For two to four years?'"
In court on March 12, Masoli nearly changed his mind again. "We just sat back down from having to rise for the judge," he recalls. "I kinda looked at [Kim] and I whispered in his ear, 'What would happen if I said no to all these questions?' ... [Kim] said, 'That would not be good right now.'"
There is a noticeable absence of police or prosecution in the account to argue anything therein. (All declined interviews, as did Chip Kelly.) The old cliché about the webs we weave, etc., seems especially appropriate here: If Masoli really didn't take anything – and even if he didn't, it seems clear from his own account that he understood what Embry was doing – he could have cleared his name in an hour by remaining at the house, answering questions and showing the accuser and police that he really didn't have anything on him. Instead, he took the most incriminating possible path out, and made his own bed with the lie.
The extenuating circumstances do explain why he was only suspended after that incident, rather than booted from the team outright. But whatever your reading of Masoli's account of the robbery, any claim he still had to sympathy or injustice was officially squashed when he was pulled over with a suspended license and marijuana a little less than three months later. Again, the SI article takes pains to imply that the weed could have just as easily belonged to Masoli's passenger, Darron Thomas, one of the players in line to replace Masoli as the Ducks' quarterback this fall. But you can only be in the wrong place at the wrong time before you get labeled as the wrong guy.
Maybe Oxford, Miss., is the right place for Masoli, who certainly seems bright enough to appreciate being handed yet another chance under the circumstances. It would take a really vengeful person to begrudge him that. But playing the "victim" card is laying it on a little thick.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.