Shabazz Muhammad is ineligible and the NCAA is full of cowards

Stephen Dunn

The Shabazz Muhammad story keeps getting stranger in L.A., and as he remains ineligible, he's this year's example of everything that's idiotic about the NCAA and college basketball.

The facts: Shabazz Muhammad was the no. 1 or no. 2 basketball recruit in America last year (depending on where you look), and last spring he chose UCLA over Duke and Kentucky. Then last weekend the NCAA declared him ineligible indefinitely.

They issued a press release explaining the ruling:

... Muhammad accepted travel and lodging during three unofficial visits to two NCAA member schools. The university and the NCAA enforcement staff agreed on the set of facts in the case, which led to the determination that a violation occurred. NCAA member schools have established standards to determine when an individual may provide financial assistance to student-athletes. These criteria, which were not met in this case, are in place to identify when benefits are provided based on a student-athlete’s athletic ability.

In case you've never followed recruiting, athletes can take up to five "official" visits where schools cover expenses, but for "unofficial" visits, recruits are responsible for covering expenses out of pocket. Which raises the obvious point: If the NCAA wants to start looking at who pays for unofficial visits, it's a wormhole that'll end with dozens of recruits suspended every year. But instead of doing all that work and jeopardizing the product, Shabazz Muhammad gives them a famous name to use as an example for everyone else.

For context's sake, here's the Muhammad family telling their side of things:

...As recently as November 2012, the NCAA promised that it would not issue a Press Release.

Last Friday, the NCAA released a Press Release which not only was wrong in its conclusions but which also inaccurately portrayed the investigation process in this case. For over a year, the NCAA has known all of the relevant facts related to its ruling last Friday. Prior to the unofficial visits in question, Ron Holmes and Benjamin Lincoln received approval from NCAA (through its member universities) for Mr. Lincoln (who has had a continuous close friendship with Shabazz’s family since 2007) to pay for airline tickets and hotel rooms. In 2010, Mr. Holmes openly and honestly revealed to the NCAA the source of the payments on the NCAA’s compliance form. Shabazz’s family is now faced with the situation where they are concerned that any attempt to tell more of their side of the story will result in further punitive action, as Shabazz is still under the mercy of the NCAA.

Yes, we all know the NCAA is obnoxious and horrible, but seriously. This is the bureaucracy at its worst, where the institutional hypocrisy is actually overshadowed by the sheer incompetence of the institution.

To review: The NCAA has known about this since 2010, and the trips were officially approved until this past weekend, when the NCAA decided they weren't. It's now too late for Muhammad to explore any other options, like playing in Europe, paying back the money, or (God forbid) appealing the decision in time to actually play the first half of his season at UCLA.

But here's what makes this especially infuriating: Situations like this are inevitable for star basketball players these days. The NCAA investigators can suspend a different Shabazz Muhammad every year if they want.

The rulebook treats high school basketball like it's supposed to be Hoosiers, but in the real world the four or five best basketball players in every recruiting class are celebrities by the time they're 15 years old. They're scrutinized by pro scouts as early as 16, inundated with overtures from agents, runners, and agents' runners, and every decision they make from there can shape their professional future. There will always be minor NCAA violations with the families of the best high school basketball players, because the families of the best high school basketball players would be financially insane if they didn't do anything they can to protect themselves along the way.

Aside from all the obvious arguments about NCAA hypocrisy, just from a pragmatic standpoint, Muhammad's case is a perfect example of how the NCAA's rules doom today's prodigies--the ones who can benefit most from outside help are the same ones most likely to get dragged through a character assassinating investigation should they have the audacity to get any help along the way.

For instance, ESPN analysts love to wonder what LeBron James would've looked like in college if he'd come up during the NBA's age limit era. It's a fun daydream, but also also a complete joke. LeBron would've been ruled ineligible instantly.

These cases are just an easy way for the NCAA and its investigators to perpetuate the lie that amateurism still matters. This is why Shabazz Muhammad is inelgible now, why it took Nerlens Noel nine months to receive NCAA eligibility this year, and why Baylor's Perry Jones--who was homeless and bouncing between motels his senior year in high school--was ruled ineligible in 2011.

As ESPN reported on Jones' situation (emphasis added):

Perry Sr.'s pallet business was struggling, and he had trouble finding other work. Terri's income wasn't enough to pay the four-figure mortgage on their Duncanville house, much less the bills that came along with it. Jones remembers the electricity being shut off on multiple occasions. Brutal as the Texas summers can be, they're unbearable without air conditioning. Eventually, each member of the Jones family packed a week's worth of clothes into a suitcase and placed the rest of their belongings in a storage shed.

For most of the school year, the Joneses rented cheap hotel rooms by the week. If they were lucky, there'd be two beds and a pull-out couch to accommodate six people. Instead of sharing a mattress with his brothers, there were a few times that Perry -- all 6 feet, 11 inches of him -- curled up and slept on the floor.

[...]

At one point early in Jones' senior year, Terri Jones made a request that would ultimately result in her son's six-game suspension from Baylor. She asked Jones' AAU coach, Lawrence Johns, for three loans that would allow her to make mortgage payments so she could keep her family in its house and off the streets.

Terri Jones said the three payments -- which totaled $1,195 each -- were due on the fourth of each month. She said she repaid Johns once she received her paycheck on the 15th.

That decision got Perry Jones suspended on the eve of the Big 12 Tournament and cost Jones (and Baylor) a shot at playing in the NCAA Tournament that spring. It raised concerns about his draft stock, and was probably part of what kept him in school. Had he played out the rest of the 2011 season and gone pro in a weaker draft class, there's a good chance he would've gone in the top half of the lottery on potential alone. Instead, he returned to school for his sophomore year and failed to live up to the hype, and fell to the 27th spot in the 2012 draft.

There's a decent argument that the NCAA cost Perry Jones about five million dollars because of three $1,200 loans that kept his six person family from becoming homeless.

Stuff like that Perry Jones ruling happens constantly. It's how the NCAA investigators pretend to have control over who's taking what. They can't aggressively pursue everyone who breaks the rules, because everyone breaks the rules, and then there would be no product to sell. So instead they single out a few of the best, most famous players, and everything looks like it still works. It also turns college basketball into a giant trap for young, black superstars.

We could elaborate, but a four-year college basketball player already did. As Arizona's Solomon Hill told USA Today when asked about the Shabazz situation, "It's going to show future classes, 'Okay, they're going to put you under investigation, make you look like the bad guy just to make an example of you.' If you don't want to be investigated, just don't go to college. If you take money early, make the decision that you're not going to attend college and you're going to seek training. There's nothing bad with that decision."

You just never know when the NCAA is going to decide to go on a witch hunt and turn a kid's life upside down for a few months. If Shabazz Muhammad had gone to Duke, he might be in the clear right now. Likewise, if John Wall had gone to Baylor instead of Kentucky, maybe he never plays a second in college. You just never know!

The truth is that the NCAA decided to target Muhammad a long time ago, only they still can't prove any wrongdoing. They think he took money, they think he had a relationship with Adidas that led him to UCLA, and they have no proof of anything, so they're suspending him while they try to find anything that might stick. If this sounds like a paranoid theory with no proof, well, we're only following the NCAA's lead.

Insanity only begets more insanity--where one day an attorney overhears secondhand info on an airplane and it becomes the most honest public testimony we've ever gotten from the NCAA.

As the anonymous whistleblower tells the L.A. Times, she was sitting behind a man who was talking about Muhammad and claimed his girlfriend is a lawyer with the NCAA. She remembers, "He was insistent that, 'My girlfriend is investigating him and he's dirty' and … 'I can guarantee you that he's not going to play.' I was more offended in the delight he seemed to take in something that was very serious and could ruin this man's life, which is the reason that this stuck with me."

If you have any doubts about the veracity of the report, the "delight" in this kid going down is a dead giveaway that it's real. That's how these people think.

Now, partly because of that colossally embarrassing report, Shabazz will probably play at some point soon. But then come draft time, the questions about plane tickets will become questions about whether he's "entitled", because even if people recognize the NCAA's stupidity, the word "scandal" is hard to shake. It's how sports work, and it's how scouting works. It's why these investigations leave a mark even when they prove nothing, it's why Perry Jones thought ended up back at Baylor for his sophomore year, and it's all very stupid, every single year.

What is stupidest this year is that all of the suspicion with Muhammad began because of his family friend, the financial adviser who paid to fly him to colleges. Shabazz is in trouble because an financial adviser paid, because his family's been open about their ties to that adviser and to Adidas, and because he's good enough that everyone's paying attention. It all gives us our latest and greatest example of why amateurism is such a backwards concept next to the 2012 basketball landscape.

On one side we have a high school hoops world where superstars like Shabazz become commodities at 15 years old and NBA prospects by 16, but still need ten different kinds of help to come through the landscape with any hope of capitalizing on the potential. On the other side, we have a non-profit organization that can play God with a great player who seeks professional help at any point, staining his character and jeopardizing his future, all as a way to underscore their power.

That's why these scandals happen to a new superstar freshman almost every year in the one-and-done era--with rules that can't possibly be applied to everyone, the NCAA's only defense against extinction is to go after a few high profile cases each year and pretend extinction hasn't already begun. It's an organization full of cowards, married to a system that's doomed to failure and determined to shift the blame onto teenagers.

So here we are, waiting for the NCAA to offer another ruling on Shabazz Muhammad later this week, pretending that every other freshman in America followed all the rules, while college seniors publicly tell America's best basketball players not to go to college.

On that last point--I actually think it's smart for future NBA stars to spend a year or two playing college basketball. It's just too bad the NCAA makes me look like such a hopeless idiot for saying that.

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