Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2017

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What the Shabazz Muhammad case says about the NCAA

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On Monday night, UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad scored 15 points in his highly anticipated college basketball debut, as his Bruins lost to the Georgetown Hoyas, 78-70.

By the time of the Georgetown game, UCLA already had three games under its belt and had traveled to China. Muhammad, a Bishop Gorman High School graduate whom many regarded as the best player coming out of high school this year, had to skip those early games and miss the overseas trip. You can guess why. Until late last Friday, he was the subject of an investigation by the NCAA, which, this month, had declared him ineligible “due to violations of NCAA amateurism rules.”

In the scheme of things, missing three games and a trip abroad is hardly the most onerous of penalties — even throwing in the $1,600 Muhammad is supposed to pay back for accepting “impermissible benefits.” But this case is so offensive, even by the NCAA’s debased standards, that I felt the need to bring it to a wider audience.

The central character in this drama, aside from Muhammad himself, is Benjamin Lincoln, a white, middle-aged financial adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. In 2007, when Muhammad was in seventh grade, Lincoln met Ron Holmes, Muhammad’s father, at a wedding. Over time, the two men became close.

Holmes is in the Las Vegas real estate business, and things got a little rough after the housing bubble burst. So when, as a top recruit, Muhammad wanted to visit Duke and the University of North Carolina — visits his family would have to pay for — Lincoln told Holmes he would pick up the tab. Under the NCAA’s Byzantine amateurism rule, close family friends are allowed to pay for such visits, but agents, boosters and hangers-on are not. It almost goes without saying that the NCAA gets to decide who is a close family friend and who is a booster.

Lincoln and Holmes were confident that he fit into the former category. The NCAA, however, quickly became suspicious — and antagonistic. It quietly put out the word to schools that were recruiting him that he was under a cloud.

In the spring, when Muhammad signed a letter of intent with UCLA, the NCAA revved up. Led by its assistant director of enforcement, Abigail Grantstein, it demanded thousands of documents from Muhammad’s family and interrogated everyone involved. Grantstein infuriated Lincoln by implying in an interview that he was somehow dirty.

Sure enough, on Nov. 9, the NCAA declared Muhammad ineligible. In the NCAA press release, there was no mention of how long his suspension would continue. UCLA, declaring itself “disappointed,” vowed to appeal. But such appeals don’t often succeed, and based on precedent, it seemed likely that Muhammad wouldn’t get to play until next year sometime.

On Thursday, the day before the appeal ruling was due, a remarkable article appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Florence Johnson Raines, a Memphis lawyer, told a reporter that she had been on an airplane in early August and overheard a man bragging that his girlfriend “Abigail” was going to bring down Muhammad, whose family, he said loudly, was “dirty and they were taking money and she’s going to get them.” This indiscretion came only a week after the NCAA had asked for documents and three months before the NCAA declared Muhammad ineligible.

Is it a surprise that, the very next day, the NCAA restored Muhammad’s eligibility? Not after that revelation. Abigail, of course, was Grantstein, and she had apparently breached the confidentiality the NCAA always insists on — indeed that she insists upon when she conducts interviews. Far worse, she appeared to have made up her mind about Muhammad’s guilt before conducting her investigation. The boyfriend’s seeming delight in Muhammad’s plight had offended Jones, which is why she spoke to the Los Angeles Times.

The NCAA now says it is investigating the overheard conversation because it wants to protect “the integrity” of its process. For those of us who never believed that NCAA investigations were conducted with integrity, however, it was a case of suspicions confirmed.

There is something else. Three of the most high-profile eligibility cases this basketball season — Muhammad, Nerlens Noel at Kentucky and Rodney Purvis at North Carolina State — are black. Five Ohio State football players who were suspended for trading some of their gear for tattoos in 2010 were black. Ditto the 14 North Carolina football players who got embroiled in a scandal two years ago.

When I asked Stacey Osburn at the NCAA whether white players ever had such problems with the NCAA, she insisted they did. Yet, somehow, the high-profile cases almost always seem to involve blacks.

Could it be that the NCAA rules are inherently discriminatory or that its investigators are primed to think the worst of talented black football and basketball players, even before an inquiry?

Nah. Must just be a coincidence.

Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.

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