The 2010 national champion Auburn Tigers were gripped by an epidemic of synthetic marijuana use that led to a rash of failed drug tests and a decision at the highest levels of the university's athletic department to keep the results confidential, ESPN has learned.
A six-month investigation by ESPN The Magazine and "E:60" into the spread of synthetic marijuana at Auburn reveals that a dozen students on the football team, including its star running back, Michael Dyer, failed tests for the designer drug.
The school did not implement testing for the drug until after it won the national championship in January 2011, and as many as a dozen other seniors who used synthetic marijuana were never caught, the investigation also found.
The drug -- also referred to as "spice" -- has been linked to paranoid delusions, hallucinations, and, in rare cases, deaths.
In one extreme case, a freshman tight end, Dakota Mosley, failed seven consecutive weekly tests for the drug, but never was punished. (He was suspended for three months in a separate incident after he tested positive for marijuana.) The Arkansas native says he learned he'd failed a sixth test on the same day he was scheduled to meet with NCAA investigators to discuss a probe into potential recruiting violations.
Instead of being kicked off the team, Mosley was brought into then-coach Gene Chizik's office and told he could keep his spot on the team.
"The whole time, I was thinking, 'They can't do nothing about the spice,' " Mosley told The Magazine and "E:60."
The next day, the emboldened freshman was part of a midnight incident that left him and three other Tigers charged with an armed home invasion robbery.
The first of the Tigers to come to trial, Antonio Goodwin, was convicted in June 2012, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. At his trial, Dyer, who lent the players a gun allegedly used in the crime, admitted to chronically smoking synthetic marijuana. In a jailhouse interview with ESPN, Goodwin estimated that "half the team probably smoked spice."
A second defendant, star safety Mike McNeil, is scheduled for trial in Lee County Circuit Court next week. On Wednesday, in a story largely focusing on McNeil, the website roopstigo.com reported allegations from former players that Chizik and his staff changed players' grades to secure eligibility, offered money to potential NFL draft picks so they would return for their senior seasons and violated NCAA recruiting rules.
No date has been set for the third accused robber, Shaun Kitchens. All were dismissed from the team by Chizik the day after the crime.
Auburn's athletic department released a statement Thursday that said those interviewed for the ESPN The Magazine report made "baseless and inaccurate" allegations.
"The facts clearly demonstrate that the Auburn Athletics Department and the Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics acted appropriately and aggressively in response to the growing threat of synthetic marijuana during the 2010-2011 academic year," Auburn's statement said.
Auburn director of sports medicine Joseph Petrone conducted 799 tests on student-athletes for synthetic marijuana in the six months following the championship game and found 18 positives, 12 of which came from the football team.
The Magazine/"E:60" investigation revealed that while Chizik and Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs were aware of the football team's 12 positive tests for synthetic marijuana, they kept the results secret, even from the parents of the players.
Because synthetic marijuana was new, Jacobs contended in an interview, it was not yet part of the university's official drug-testing policy and therefore not something coaches could punish students for using.
"We did all we could do to educate our student-athletes until [we] could understand exactly what we're dealing with," Jacobs told The Magazine. "I think just like the rest of the campus, and the nation, we were trying to figure it out."
As a result of that decision, not one parent was notified, and no discipline was meted out in the eight-month gap between the first test in January 2011, and August 2011, when Auburn's drug policy was officially amended to include synthetic marijuana.
Auburn's statement said "there have been three positive tests for the drug out of more than 2,500 drug tests administered" since its drug testing policy was amended.
Kitchens' mother, Kimberly Harkness, a nursing assistant, told The Magazine that she would have put her son into rehab if she'd known. She said she spoke with her son two weeks before the robbery by phone while he was in the office of Trooper Taylor, the team's assistant head coach. Not a word was mentioned about the synthetic marijuana test that the wide receiver failed, or suspicions that was the reason why he was skipping class and missing team meetings.
"I knew something was wrong but I couldn't put my finger on it," Harkness said. "I feel like Auburn betrayed me."
Mosley's attorney, Davis Whittelsey, said he will argue in court that Auburn was more concerned with covering up drug tests than getting students counseling for the highly addictive drug, which is linked to about 11,000 emergency room visits a year.
"Could Auburn have done more? Hell, yeah," Whittelsey said. "Not only could they have done more, they should have done more."
The team's hidden synthetic marijuana problem may have links to an NCAA probe into recruiting violations at the university.
The Magazine and "E:60" have obtained text messages between Mosley and his father from March 9, 2011, that show a heightened level of concern about what Mosley would say to the NCAA investigator he was going to meet after his meeting with Chizik. His father, Harrison, was particularly concerned about a photo of Dakota that hit the Internet, showing him clutching stacks of bills.
"Did you ever visit with the NCAA lady," he asks his son at 7:21 p.m. on March 9, 2011.
"Yeah, I did," Dakota answers.
"So what was said?"
"Just asked about the trips."
"What about the picture?"
"Just told them it was from my mom selling her car."
"That was it?" Harrison asks. Then he follows up with, "Call me for a minute."
An Auburn spokesperson insisted there was no connection with the meeting that Chizik held with Mosley, and the NCAA meeting.