Marcus Ray knows better. He’s a senior, he’s a captain, he had all last year to hang with his buddy Charles Woodson and witness, up close, the vultures that come swirling when you have NFL potential. He’s seen fast talkers. He’s seen the jewelry and the nice suits and the fast cars.

Marcus knows the rules. He knows that, as long as you are a college player, you can’t associate with agents. Period. Can’t let them buy you lunch. Can’t take a “tiny token of their appreciation.” Can’t look the other way when they pay for a hotel room, which is one of the things he is now being accused of doing. The simple formula is this: If you’re a college football star, you see an agent coming, you head the other way.

Marcus allegedly didn’t, at least in one incident in Ohio over the summer. This was not a case of him hanging too closely with Woodson or Woodson’s agents. Woodson wasn’t involved. No, this is about Marcus Ray, a good kid, a leader. And Michigan fans stunned by his suspension from the football team Thursday should prepare for the worst: If the current accusations prove true, Ray might have played his last game for the Wolverines.

Now, that’s harsh, I know. And I hate even writing the sentence, because I have a real problem with the NCAA and its archaic set of rules. They govern under an outdated, dictatorial and often hypocritical system — considering how they cluck their tongues at money for athletes, yet gobble it up themselves.

But the issue is not whether I like the rules. The issue is whether Marcus Ray broke them. Ray, a strong safety who is arguably the team’s best defensive player, is insisting he is innocent. I hope he is.

I also hope he can prove it, with documentation.

Otherwise, a lapse in judgment could cost him the rest of his college career.

Innocent till proven guilty

Now, let’s get a few things straight here.

1) Ray must be given the chance to prove his innocence. Remember, we’re talking about a student-athlete, not a criminal. Even if he did what he is accused of doing, it is against the rules, not against the law. If Marcus claims this is a case of mistaken identity, or a set-up, or someone’s vendetta, well, let’s check it out. In the high stakes, envy-filled world of college athletics, stranger things have happened.

2) Just because U-M suspended Ray does not necessarily mean he’s guilty. Michigan has learned, through recent sad experience, that the best way to handle even a whiff of impropriety is to take immediate action yourself, rather than wait for the NCAA to crack its whip. Thus, by suspending Ray for Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan, they fire a preemptive strike against NCAA action.

3) Suspending Ray is actually protecting the team. Should he be found guilty of any infractions later on, any game he played in would have to be forfeited.

4) This incident — if there indeed was an incident — does not mean that Michigan is running a “dirty” program. Nor does it mean that Lloyd Carr can’t control his team. Year after year, the U-M players are lectured about the NCAA rules. I know. I have been there for some of the lectures. Carr has law-enforcement people come in. He has FBI people come in. He does the best a coach can do: He makes sure his players know the rules and where he stands on them. He cannot live with them 24 hours a day — especially over the summer, when Ray’s infraction allegedly took place.

“Every year, I talk to every one of our players who has NFL potential,” Carr said Thursday. “I tell them, if you want to go to the pros, you can go. But if you stay here, you have to abide by the rules. I tell them. I tell them.”

You can tell them until you’re blue in the face. Sometimes it doesn’t make a difference.

It’s happened before

Ask Bo Schembechler. The man who symbolizes coaching discipline was duped by two of his players back in the ’80s, Garland Rivers and Rob Perryman. Despite at least five conversations about the dangers of agents, despite posting a sign in the locker room with photos of agents Lloyd Bloom and Norby Walters — under the caption “STAY AWAY FROM THESE MEN” — despite all that, Rivers and Perryman signed contracts with them while still playing for Michigan.

Schembechler blew a gasket when he found out, and severed all ties. But he couldn’t prevent the damage.

Nor could Penn State’s exalted Joe Paterno, whose star running back, Curtis Enis, took gifts last year from an agent, but lied about it to Paterno. Enis was suspended, and immediately jumped to the pros. Same problem befell the celebrated John Calipari while he was coaching the Massachusetts basketball team. Marcus Camby, a star player, accepted gifts from an agent, but never told Calipari. Ultimately, UMass had to forfeit its 1996 NCAA semifinal title.

It happens all the time. And the agents keep coming. They know the trouble they can cause a kid just by showing up. They keep coming. There are few things more pathetic than watching some of these bloodsuckers cuddling next to young talent, complimenting them, laughing too hard at their jokes, acting as if they’re a big brother, when all they see are dollar signs.

But they keep coming. And Marcus Ray knew what they looked like. He says he didn’t do anything. I have my fingers crossed for him. Last January, in an interview, Ray beamed as he told me, “I want next year to be my coming-out party.”

This wasn’t what he had in mind.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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