Man at center of UGA's Todd Gurley autograph scandal shares his story
DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. -- The first chance Bryan Allen had to avoid this mess came in the summer of 2012. He was training to become a firefighter, but an opportunity arose. His favorite sports shop was in financial trouble. He could buy it with a low offer. Allen had always wanted to run such a store, so in ’12 he took out a loan and made the offer. Firefighting could wait. “I had the decision,” Allen says. “Do I want to go back to school? Or do I want to do this and try to make this succeed? I made the wrong decision. I didn’t go back to school … One of my good friends did the [opposite] thing and is a firefighter right now. It’s so stable.”
Allen, 30, would trade anything for that stability now. He has no job. He has no home of his own. He is universally hated by fans of the most popular college football team in his state. Some would probably punch him in the face if they recognized him.
Allen readily acknowledges his role in Georgia tailback Todd Gurley’s four-game NCAA suspension for selling autographs, but he claims he isn’t the person he has been made out to be on message boards and on the “I Hate Bryan Allen” Facebook page (which had 4,692 likes as of Tuesday morning), where his identifying personal information and the dates of his parents’ deaths were posted shortly after Georgia announced Gurley’s suspension on Oct. 9. Late last month Allen gave a three-hour, 15-minute joint interview to SI.com and ESPN in an attempt to explain who he is and how he wound up turning in the player who, at the time, was the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. “I do take responsibility,” Allen says. “But my intentions were never to try to get rich. I think people think I’m this autograph broker that was dangling this carrot in front of these young college kids. That couldn’t be further from it. I’m not an autograph broker.”
Allen says he’s a guy who made a series of poor choices that made him one of the most despised men in the Peach State since William Tecumseh Sherman. The first of those was leaving firefighting school to run a sports apparel store in Rome, Ga. While running Players, which did not sell autographed items when he bought it, Allen met a Rome man who had a lot of autographed memorabilia and has a side business selling it on eBay. The men agreed to place some items in Allen’s store to sell on consignment provided the items were verified by an authentication service. Allen didn’t expect to make much money off the memorabilia -- he would only receive a flat fee -- but believed it might generate buzz and help bring people into the store, which at the time was located at a less-than-desirable end of a local mall. “Nobody’s going to come in and spend $500 on an autographed Herschel Walker helmet,” Allen says. “But it’s going to bring them in.”
In the spring of 2013 the store was generating enough income for Allen to make a living when the owners of the mall told Allen and partner Scott Hunter that their lease would not be renewed. They moved the store to downtown Rome, but sales suffered without a comparable volume of foot traffic. Allen sold his part of the business in November ’13, but through his consignment relationship he had met some people who dabbled in the autograph industry. One of those people, Allen says, was a man from Cedartown, Ga., named Shane Smith.
Allen was living off the proceeds from his sale of the store early this year. Smith called in January and suggested they buy some Georgia helmets and jerseys and bring them to a store called Sports Addiction in Marietta, Ga. Quarterback Aaron Murray, who had just wrapped his senior season with the Bulldogs, was scheduled to sign. Murray’s autograph on a helmet, a mini-helmet or an authentic jersey would fetch a decent price. Allen says he bought about $300 worth of Georgia merchandise to have Murray sign. But the line for Murray’s autograph was massive when the men arrived. The quarterback wouldn’t be able to sign all of their pieces, so they gave up and went home.
Allen says he next heard from Smith this past spring, and it was then that he made his second poor choice. According to Allen, Smith said he had a signing set up with Gurley, who was about to enter his junior season. The men still had all the Georgia memorabilia, so they figured they could get it signed by Gurley, whose autograph would be quite valuable if he had the kind of year his freshman and sophomore seasons suggested he would. The key difference, however, is Murray broke no rules with his signing. His college eligibility had already expired. If Gurley charged for his signature, he would break an NCAA rule against players selling their autographs. This rule exists so boosters can’t pay a huge amount of money for one player signature as an inducement to attend a particular school, but it has come under fire in recent years as former athletes have sued (and won) in federal court claiming the NCAA and the schools have colluded to deny them the right to sell their names, images and likenesses for television broadcasts and video games.
Allen says Smith told him Gurley wanted $400 for the signing. Allen says Smith asked Allen to put up more than half -- Allen doesn’t remember if it was $225 or $250. He does remember Smith asked him to hold all the money. Allen says Smith also asked Allen to drive. Allen picked up Smith in Villa Rica, Ga., in his 2002 Lexus sedan and the men started the two-hour drive east to Athens. “I never brokered any deal. That’s the huge part I want out there,” Allen says. “I never called a player. I never tried to set a signing up. Nothing. This guy came to me and asked me, ‘Will you help me with this?’ You can’t just put the blame on one person because everybody’s equally to blame. All I had to do was tell him ‘No’ and none of this happens.”
Allen says Smith guided him to Gurley’s apartment complex in Athens. They saw Gurley walking through the parking lot when they arrived. Allen says Smith met with Gurley and brought him to Allen’s car. Gurley sat in the passenger seat. Smith sat in the driver’s seat. Allen sat in the back seat so he could hand items to Smith, who would then hand them to Gurley to autograph. After signing, Gurley passed the items to Smith, who passed them back to Allen to place in bags. Allen says he noticed Smith taking cellphone photographs of Gurley, presumably to later show to an authentication service to verify that the signatures weren’t fakes.
However, when Allen noticed Smith taking pictures of the interior of the car, he says he got nervous and pulled out his own phone to shoot a video. Later, when Allen showed the video to various media outlets, he would be asked why it didn’t show Gurley’s face. Allen says now that was because he wanted to make sure he captured Smith’s face -- not Gurley’s. During the four-minute, 43-second video, Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound” plays on Allen’s car stereo.
Allen estimates the signing took between 10 and 20 minutes. Allen says Smith told him to place the money on the dashboard instead of handing it directly to Gurley. Allen says Gurley took the cash and counted it out to ensure the correct amount. “He was like, ‘Y’all be good.’ And he got out of the car and he walked away,” Allen says. “And that was it. And that was the first and only interaction with Todd Gurley that I’ve ever had.”
Through a Georgia sports information official, Gurley declined to comment for this story.
Allen and Gurley would become forever intertwined because of a set of choices Allen made several months later. Allen says his life was going quite well this past summer. He had landed a job selling insurance for Georgia Farm Bureau in the Dallas, Ga., office. He had rented a place within walking distance. He loved his new job and living situation. Shortly after moving to Dallas he looked at a box containing some of the Gurley-autographed memorabilia -- Smith had taken most of it, Allen says -- and decided he would try to sell a few pieces. Football season was approaching. Someone might want to buy them.
The market for the memorabilia was softer than Allen had anticipated. Signed photos that should have been going for $45-$50 were drawing offers of $25-$30. Allen says he declined those, but in September he sold a football, a helmet and a photo. Allen says shortly after selling the items, he was dozing on his couch while an episode of The Simpsons played on his TV. His phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. Blocked. He normally doesn’t answer such calls, he says, but in this case he was drowsy. “I’m thinking it’s a bill collector,” Allen says. Allen says the person on the other end of the line did not identify himself. “Todd Gurley autographs,” Allen says the voice on the other end said. “What do you know about them?”
Allen says he panicked. “I lied,” he says. “I told them I didn’t know anything.”
Allen says he received a call from a California number two days later. “They said, ‘We have information that you’ve been involved with Todd Gurley in an autograph signing.’ I had already lied to that one guy,” Allen says. “In my head, I was thinking I shouldn’t lie.”
Allen wasn’t worried about NCAA rules. He says he remembered that he hadn’t bothered to authenticate the Gurley pieces he had sold. “What if it’s somebody who bought that piece and wants to investigate and they contact the seller and he says he doesn’t know what they’re talking about?” Allen says. “If you sell a counterfeit autograph, that’s a felony. It’s forgery.” Actually, it’s fraud. But it still could result in a criminal charge*. Allen knew the autographs were genuine, but he couldn’t prove that if he was lying about being involved with a Gurley signing. “I came clean with it,” Allen says. “Then I said I didn’t want to talk about it, and I hung up on them.”
*Nothing Allen or Smith did is against the law, though politicians in Georgia are trying to change that. Last month Georgia Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) introduced HB 3 -- get it, No. 3 for Gurley -- in the Georgia House of Representatives. If passed during the next legislative session, the law would criminalize any contract with a college athlete that jeopardizes his eligibility. The bill calls for a $25,000 fine and potential jail time. It is already a misdemeanor in Georgia to pay an athlete to attend a particular college or to pay a college athlete for his level of performance.
Allen says he then took the advice of a friend who suggested Allen get his side of the story out before it broke elsewhere. “Worst advice,” Allen says. “I should have talked to a lawyer. That’s the mistake I made. I admit that. It was a mistake.”
Allen admits he made a few more mistakes in the following days. His next action -- attempting to alert the media -- got him cast as a disgruntled memorabilia dealer who was angry he couldn’t make back his original financial investment because Gurley had flooded the market with autographs. Allen insists that isn’t the case. He points to the fact that he never asked SI.com for compensation for his story. “I’ve been nothing but open -- which has been the biggest flaw,” Allen says.
He wasn’t sure how to contact anyone in the media. First he tried tweeting at ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell, asking Rovell to contact him. Twitter users may only send direct messages to people who follow them, and Rovell didn’t follow Allen. So, Allen’s tweet -- which cannot be recovered because he has since deleted his account -- likely got buried in the replies column of Rovell, who has more than 500,000 Twitter followers.
Having no luck with Rovell, Allen began trying other media members. It still isn’t clear how many emails he sent -- Allen claims it was two -- but Spencer Hall of SB Nation received one on Sept. 30 and wrote about it after Gurley was suspended on Oct. 9. Here is what SB Nation published:
I have video of Todd Gurley doing a private autograph signing ***. He has been paid thousands of dollars for his stuff over the last 18 months. I personally paid him for this signing on the video. I have bought and sold game used equipment from him.
I want no compensation. Just want someone to leak this story that's deserving. If you have any interest, give me a call or email. I attached a photo of him in my car signing a mini helmet that I just sold last week on my eBay store.
All I ask is some privacy until we can touch base.
I live on Georgia and would crucified if my name was released. The video is about 5 minutes long but doesn't show the money exchange.
My cell is **********
I believe this would be the lead story on sports center if ESPN got their hands on this. Hope to hear from you soon.
Allen did not send an email to SI.com, but I received a screen shot of an email sent from him to someone else on the evening of Sept. 30. Here's the text of that email:
Do you have any interest in a story about the number 1 player in college football getting paid for his signatures? There is a video of Gurley doing a private signing on the UGA campus with two autograph dealers in their car. He signs roughly 80-100 pieces.
He has done this dozens of times and its (sic) overlooked by the school.
No hard feelings if you don’t. TMZ has the video in their possession but I am not sure if they are going to leak it. I am not looking for compensation of any sort. The only reason I considered allowing TMZ to leak it is because of how they handled the Ray Rice and how it made ESPN and Roger Goodell look. They actually were a slimey (sic) company that day and did good for fans everywhere.
[E-mail address redacted]
[Phone number redacted]
I called the number on the night of Sept. 30. Allen answered. At first he thought I was one of his friends playing a prank on him. I sent him a direct message from my Twitter account to prove I wasn’t one of his buddies.
Allen verified that he had sent the email and that he was one of the people in the car with Gurley when he signed. He also offered to send a copy of the video provided that SI.com agreed not to publish it without his permission. I asked if he was willing to go on the record, and Allen said he wasn’t comfortable doing so. I told him SI.com would probably run a story the next day -- after asking Gurley and Georgia officials for their versions of specific events -- if Allen was willing to attach his name to the accusation. Allen said he couldn’t do that, and I told him I would follow up in a day or so to see if he had changed his mind.
A day after Gurley was suspended, Deadspin published a story claiming it had received emails from the Gurley tipster. The headline: “The Todd Gurley Snitch Was a Spiteful Memorabilia Dealer.” Deadspin’s Timothy Burke received an email containing the following passage on Sept. 30:
It will be front page of ESPN if the story leaks. Whatever site breaks the news first will have massive amounts of website traffic, if you are interested let me know.
It might be worthless, I just thought I'd talk to you. Sports Illustrated is willing to run the story tomorrow if I will go on record. They have seen the video. They aren't going to compensate me so it doesn't make sense to release it and accept that backlash. Some sort of compensation does though.
If you don't have any interest, no hard feelings at all. If you do, my cell is [redacted].
Allen confirmed sending this email to Deadspin. Later in the same story Deadspin quoted a different email sent by the tipster after a Deadspin reporter asked if the video showed Gurley accepting money.
It doesn't. Its similar to the manziel stuff. Its pretty incriminating and SI is pretty into it.
It would definitely be front page of ESPN if leaked at the right time.
Again, not offended at all if you have no interest. TMZ has seen the video but NP (sic) offer has been made.
Again, not trying to get rich. I spent a few grand on the signing and Gurley has since kind of screwed me by doing this with about 30 other guys. The stuff has lost a ton of its value. Just wanna recoup some of my money.
Shown that section during the interview, Allen denied writing it. He then allowed SI.com to search his sent mail on various email addresses, but said he no longer has access to his work email from that time. “I didn’t spend thousands of dollars,” Allen says. “Why would I lie?”
No media outlet elected to run the story. On Oct. 2 I connected with Allen again. He suggested he might inform Georgia’s compliance office about the signing. Other reporters had also been calling. “This is just causing a big stir,” Allen says of the days following his emails. “This is the opposite of what I wanted to happen.” Allen found himself at a crossroads. Should he drop the issue and let it die? Or should he keep going? He chose the latter.
“Many times, I’m thinking this. From day one, maybe I should just let this go. But then I was right there. And before you know it, you’re knee deep. Then I put in that call to compliance. That was kind of like, ‘You’re either going to be honest about this, or you’re going to lie to everybody.’”
On Oct. 3 Allen decided to call Georgia’s compliance office. He found three phone numbers. He called them all and left messages that he had information about one of the school’s athletes.
On Saturday, Oct. 4 a compliance staffer called back. Allen told him the story, and the wheels began to turn. “Within in 30 minutes, [Georgia compliance director] Jim Booz called,” Allen says. “It was a panic. ‘What do you know? What happened?’”
On Oct. 7 Booz emailed Allen seeking a copy of the video. Allen provided a copy of that email to SI.com. It contains the log-in information to the Georgia compliance Dropbox account. (Dropbox is a popular service used to send files that are too large for most email providers.) Allen logged in and began uploading the video. Allen says that while the 433.7-megabyte video uploaded, Booz called repeatedly. Booz sent a text message to Allen at 6:49 p.m. on Oct. 7. The only word: “Done?”
After viewing the video, Georgia officials and attorney Mike Glazier, who had been hired by Georgia to help handle the case, had more questions. Allen says he was asked on Oct. 8 who the other person in the car was. He said, “Shane.” “Shane Smith?” Allen remembers a compliance official asking. Allen gave officials Smith’s number.
The next day, Allen says, Smith called. “What the [expletive] is going on?” Allen remembers Smith saying. Two men representing Georgia -- one compliance staffer and one person from Glazier’s office -- had visited Smith at his Cedartown home. Allen asked Smith what he had told them. “I didn’t tell them nothin’,” Allen says Smith responded.
A few hours later Georgia announced Gurley was suspended. “At about 4:30 or 4:45 on the ninth, [Gurley] got suspended,” Allen says. “Cedartown is about two and a half hours from Athens. … That basically verified what they wanted to know.”
After Georgia and the NCAA finished their investigation into Gurley in late October, the NCAA released a statement declaring the tailback had accepted “more than $3,000 in cash from multiple individuals for autographed memorabilia and other items over two years.” Allen says he could only provide an account of the $400 payment. The rest, he says, didn’t come from him. Contacted by phone late last month, Shane Smith referred all questions to his attorney, Brad McFall. “I’m done with it, man,” Smith told SI.com. “That was all Bryan Allen’s [expletive]. Not mine.”
Last week McFall was emailed a list of Allen's claims about Smith's actions. On Monday McFall emailed a response to SI.com. "I have spoken to my client and shared with him the claims that Mr. Allen has made that involve Mr. Smith," McFall wrote. "At this time, we see no benefit in commenting as to the accuracy or inaccuracy of Mr. Allen's comments."
After the suspension announcement on Oct. 9, Allen’s cellphone nearly melted down. Multiple reporters already knew his number and much of the story, so it didn’t take long for that information to spread. ESPN called. SB Nation called. TMZ called. I called. Allen spoke to me that night but still declined to go on the record.
The next day, Allen’s email -- with no name attached -- was published by SB Nation. Later, ESPN.com published Allen’s name. Allen worked through that Friday, but his phone kept buzzing. He says his boss suggested he leave town out of fear for Allen’s safety. On the night of Oct. 10, Allen says he drove to Nashville to stay with family. He occasionally checked his email; his address had been posted on Twitter. At some point a detailed profile including his personal information, email, phone number and names of his family members was posted on Facebook. Though he got some death threats, the email that disturbed Allen most concerned his deceased parents. “Now that we know the death dates, we’re going to find them and [expletive] on their graves from my dogs,” Allen says the emailer wrote.
Allen returned to Georgia shortly after, but he wouldn’t return to work. He says he was given the option of resigning or being fired. He showed SI.com his termination packet from Georgia Farm Bureau, which included forms to be filed with the state. One form listed the reason for separation as a resignation. The other form listed the reason for separation as a termination for “conduct in violation of acceptable standards and failure to report to work.” The date of termination is listed as Oct. 10. He also wrote a letter to his boss refusing to resign.
Allen also had to leave the house he was renting in Dallas. He was living on a month-to-month agreement, and he understands completely why his landlord would want him to move out. Allen’s involvement in the Gurley case brought TV news vans into the neighborhood for hours at a time.
Now, Allen is adrift, couch-surfing with friends and family and looking for a new job. He still has some of the Gurley-signed memorabilia, including a stack of pictures, a football and a Georgia helmet. Allen isn’t sure what he’ll do with them. Maybe, he says, he should drop them off at a children’s hospital and walk away. That might be a far better choice than the ones Allen made to land him in his current life.
“I can’t change any of that stuff -- any of those emails, me talking to the school, how it was handled -- I can’t change any of that,” Allen says. “If I could, I would. Because I never wanted to screw over Gurley. I never wanted to screw over their fans or anything like that. That was never my intention. I wish I had never even gone down there. It’s not worth it.”