Leon Orr, a star lineman at Gulf High in New Port Richey, Fla., said a photo showing him holding a pistol in his right hand and $16 in his left was taken when he was in eighth grade. Orr, who in the photo appears to be significantly smaller than his senior year weight of 295 pounds, said the pistol is a "plastic K-Mart pellet gun." Meanwhile, Lynden Trail, a star defensive end from Miami's Booker T. Washington High, said a photo that shows him wearing a bandana and making a sign with his fingers was taken in eighth grade while he was "playing around in his house." The hand gesture is the sign of the Swamp City Bird Gang, a group that operates in Miami's Overtown neighborhood.
The photos were distributed on the Web last week by the blog 13psi.com and later picked up by Deadspin, one of the Web's most popular sports blogs. "Not for nothing have they garnered the "University of Felons" nickname," Deadspin's Barry Petchesky wrote. "I'm not saying a top recruit posing with a gun and $16 is necessarily a crime, but it's not going to change any impressions."
The Florida players certainly aren't the first football players to deal with a backlash from pictures or video posted on the Web. In 2008, Oklahoma dismissed receiver Josh Jarboe, who had previous legal issues, when a video of Jarboe's profanity-laden rapping surfaced on YouTube. Jarboe landed at Troy. In March 2008, photos of Clemson offensive line signee Kenneth Page surfaced showing Page holding large stacks of cash. Page enrolled at Clemson, but he was recently dismissed for a violation of team rules and landed at Coastal Carolina.
Orr said he had been meaning to clean off his MySpace page, but he hadn't had a chance to do so while trying to graduate a semester early. "I would never jeopardize my future over some pictures," Orr said. Orr has graduated from Gulf High, but he is taking an online science course to satisfy the NCAA's initial eligibility requirements so he can enroll at Florida next month.
Orr also offered an explanation for another photo, which is captioned "Collect Money Cartel." Orr said "Collect Money Cartel" was the name of a rap group started by himself and a group of friends. They have since changed the name of the group to Merk Boyz, in honor of Mercury Avenue, the street they lived on in Tarpon Springs, Fla. "It had nothing to do with any gang activity," Orr said. According to Urban Dictionary, a Web repository of American slang, "merk" is another word for kill. The same site also lists "Merk City" as an alternate name for Tarpon Springs.
Trail said he's heard from plenty of people about the hand gesture in his picture. "That supposed gang sign I'm throwing up? That's where I stay. That's my neighborhood," he said last week. "I've thrown that up on the field a lot, and no one has said anything."
The caption to the picture on Trail's MySpace page refers to the Swamp City Bird Gang. On Tuesday, Miami-Dade police public information officer Kenia Reyes said a member of the department's gang unit confirmed that the SCBG is a known gang that operates in Overtown. Asked Tuesday if he is a member of a gang, Trail said the answer is more complicated than yes or no.
Trail said that when the photo was taken several years ago, he was "what you'd call a wannabe." He said he never carried a gun or committed crimes. According to a search on the Web site of the Miami-Dade clerk's office, Trail has no criminal record in Dade County. He also said that if a young man in his neighborhood doesn't align himself with one group or another, he opens himself up to danger. He spoke of times when he had guns pointed in his face, and his knowledge of particular gang members kept him from getting shot.
"They say you have two choices," he said. "It's either get down or lay down." "Get down" means align yourself with a group. "Lay down" means get killed. Trail said he wants to succeed in college so he can escape his neighborhood, so he never has to worry about making that choice again.
Trail's original response to the leak of the photos illustrates a sharp division between how today's teens view the Internet and how adults -- who remember a time when the Web wasn't omnipresent -- view it. Trail said last week that the lifting of the photos constituted a "violation of privacy." At the time the photos were lifted, Trail had not set his MySpace page to private, meaning anyone in the world could have viewed the images after signing up for a free MySpace account.
Trail said he couldn't believe an adult would scour recruits' social networking pages looking for embarrassing photos. "If you really care about me that much to go on my MySpace to get a picture of me, point blank, get a life," Trail said last week.