Joe Nocera for New York Times: Race and the N.C.A.A.

November 19th, 2012

New York Times
November 19, 2012
By Joe Nocera

 

On Monday night, a U.C.L.A. freshman named 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, U.C.L.A. already had three games under its belt, and had traveled to China. Muhammad, 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 N.C.A.A., which, earlier this month, had declared him ineligible “due to violations of N.C.A.A. 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 N.C.A.A.’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 N.C.A.A.’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 N.C.A.A. 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 N.C.A.A., 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 U.C.L.A., the N.C.A.A. 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 N.C.A.A. declared Muhammad ineligible. In the N.C.A.A. press release, there was no mention of how long his suspension would continue. U.C.L.A., 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 N.C.A.A. had asked for documents and three months before the N.C.A.A. declared Muhammad ineligible.

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