Former college football player pleads guilty in COVID scheme

A former college football player pleaded guilty Monday in a scheme to fraudulently obtain COVID-related unemployment benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Abdul-Malik McClain, 24, pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud for orchestrating a scheme that netted $283,063 and sought at least $1,056,092, the Justice Department said in a news release.

McClain engineered the scheme with other football players while he was attending USC in 2020. He subsequently transferred to Jackson State, where he played one season, in 2021, at linebacker.

According to the DOJ, which cited McClain's plea agreement, he "filed fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits and organized and assisted a group of other football players in filing fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits, including under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program established by Congress in response to COVID-19's economic fallout. McClain and others filed the claims with the California Employment Development Department (EDD), the administrator of the state's unemployment insurance (UI) benefit program. The claims contained false information about the claimants' supposed prior employment, pandemic-related job loss, and job-seeking efforts in California."

The Justice Department said the government authorized Bank of America to issue debit cards to the players, which they allegedly used to make cash withdrawals to fund personal expenses. In some instances, McClain "sought and obtained a cut of the fraudulently obtained benefits for helping others file fraudulent UI applications," the government said.

McClain, who originally pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of mail fraud and two counts of aggravated identity theft in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in December 2021, is set to be sentenced Sept. 16. He faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.

ESPN's Mark Schlabach and Kyle Bonagura contributed to this report.