COLUMBIA -- Gradually, South Carolina could be working toward a resolution with the NCAA regarding its football players' previous living arrangements at The Whitney Hotel.
The issue, for a long time, was whether players were receiving a special, reduced rate to stay at the hotel -- something that would be an NCAA violation, according to its extra benefits bylaws.
There is a growing feeling, though, that the Gamecocks might be OK in that respect, although they're not fully in the clear.
Instead, the more pressing issue that could end in players being suspended is the fact that they fell too far behind on their agreed-upon rent.
A source said NCAA rules state if a player owes more than a certain amount on an account for an extended period, it also falls into the category of extra benefits. The source didn't know exactly what that dollar amount is, but did believe it is in the hundreds, not thousands.
A handful of players -- there were as many as 10 staying at The Whitney at one point or another -- had fallen behind in their rent.
Which players, specifically, is not immediately clear. Nor are the terms of punishment for that type of violation.
Coach Steve Spurrier began acknowledging this week that suspensions of some kind are a distinct possibility.
"If some guys can't play, you've got other guys," Spurrier said Thursday on his radio show. "You move on and so forth. If one or two guys can't play this week, it'll give an opportunity to some other guys to step up."
In six days, the Gamecocks begin their season against Southern Miss.
Asked Thursday if the hotel matter -- or Saunders' possible involvement with an agent, an issue the NCAA has been digging into since mid-July -- will be cleared up before Thursday's opener, Spurrier repeated the word "probably" three times.
Defensive backs Akeem Auguste and C.C. Whitlock are the players who have missed the most practice time this week because of the ongoing probe into The Whitney. Defensive tackles Melvin Ingram and Ladi Ajiboye, and offensive tackle Jarriel King, have also missed some time.
Senior tight end Weslye Saunders is currently serving an indefinite suspension for lying to coaches about why he was late to practice Saturday.
Saunders, sources said, is the only player that owes a great deal of money. The amount due, as of earlier this week, was about $5,500. A source said Saunders has been staying at the hotel since May 2009 -- nearly a full year earlier than anyone else moved in.
Sources also said this week that Saunders is in the process of taking out a loan to cover what he owes to the hotel -- and, possibly, what he might owe in restitution for benefits he took from an agent, including a spring break trip to Miami that has come under great scrutiny.
A few of the players who once owed several hundred dollars have whittled that debt down, nearly to a zero balance. It's unclear whether that will help them when it comes to the NCAA's decision about possible punishments.
As of Wednesday, not counting Saunders, only two or three players still owed money, a source said.
Sources say the players were paying $450 a month, as agreed upon in a lease that was drawn up by the hotel and approved by USC's compliance office. The lease, which began in May, carried a one-year term. Players receive a $457-a-month living-expense stipend each month, a USC official said last week.
Players, except Saunders, were sharing rooms, meaning the total rate for the two-bedroom suite would have been $900 a month. That works out to be about $30 a night for the room. That low of a rate is not unheard of for members of the general public who have negotiated a rate with the hotel.
As of Wednesday, nearly a week after Spurrier "encouraged" the players to move out, Saunders was still staying at the hotel. He has told some he is waiting for athletic director Eric Hyman to ask him to leave, even though Spurrier already has.
As far as occupants falling behind on bills, and sometimes far behind, a source said it's not uncommon to the hotel. The hotel, the source said, isn't overly concerned with delinquent tenants because there are strict laws protecting eventual payment. The Whitney has never been concerned about receiving rent because of those laws.
Also to note, The Whitney is managed locally but owned by Interstate Hotels & Resorts, which is based in Arlington, Va. A source said if anyone at The Whitney was willing to give disproportionately discounted rates, to the players or anyone else, he or she would be subject to termination by the corporate body.
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