Joe Nocera / Race and the NCAA : Sweeping its misdeeds under a rug

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On Monday night, a UCLA freshman named Shabazz Mr. Muhammad made his highly anticipated college basketball debut when his Bruins played the Georgetown Hoyas in the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

By the time of the Georgetown game, UCLA already had three games under its belt and had traveled to China. Mr. Muhammad, however, had been forced to skip the trip and sit out the early games. You can guess why. Until late last Friday, he was the subject of an investigation by the NCAA, which, earlier 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Muhammad himself, is Benjamin Lincoln, a white, middle-aged financial adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. In 2007, when Mr. Muhammad was in seventh grade, Lincoln met Ron Holmes, Mr. Muhammad's father, at a wedding. Over time, the two men became close.

Mr. 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, Mr. Muhammad wanted to visit Duke and the University of North Carolina -- visits his family would have to pay for -- Mr. Lincoln told Mr. 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.

Mr. Lincoln and Mr. 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 Mr. Muhammad that he was under a cloud.

In the spring, when he signed a letter of intent with UCLA, the NCAA revved into high gear. Led by its assistant director of enforcement, Abigail Grantstein, it demanded thousands of pages of documents from Mr. Muhammad's family and interrogated everyone involved. Ms. Grantstein infuriated Mr. Lincoln when she interviewed him by implying that he was somehow dirty.

Sure enough, on Nov. 9, the NCAA declared Mr. 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 Mr. Muhammad wouldn't get to play until next year sometime.

Last Thursday, the day before the appeal ruling was due, a remarkable article appeared in the Los Angeles Times. A lawyer -- her name was not divulged -- told the 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 Mr. Muhammad, whose family, he said loudly, was "dirty and they were taking money and she's going to get them." This outburst came only a week after the NCAA had asked for documents and three months before the NCAA declared Mr. Muhammad ineligible.

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

In clearing Mr. Muhammad, the NCAA was mainly trying to sweep its own ugly behavior under the rug. For those of us who believe the NCAA doesn't play fair, however, it was suspicions confirmed.

There is something else worth mentioning. The three of the most high-profile eligibility cases this basketball season -- Shabazz Muhammad, Nerlens Noel at Kentucky and Rodney Purvis at North Carolina State -- are African-American. The five Ohio State football players who were suspended for trading some of their Ohio State gear for tattoos in 2010 were African-American. 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 the high-profile cases almost always seem to involve blacks.

It couldn't 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 New York Times columnist.


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