On Geron Johnson and the NCAA’s Ethical Dilemma

Posted by Chris Johnson on August 31st, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Over the next nine weeks, UCLA and Kentucky fans will hold their breaths as the NCAA continues its ongoing investigations of Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel, the two top players in the incoming Class of 2012. Both players face questions over potential impermissible benefits received during their recruitments. The NCAA has yet to hand down punishment and may never do so unless clear evidence of illicit activity is identified. But the longer both cases remain unresolved, the mere prospect of a lengthy suspension – even if no indication has been given of any type of punishment – is troubling not only for the players themselves, but for their coaches and the programs planning to embrace them this fall (if only for one season). Playing without Muhammad or Noel in any extended context would drastically alter the strategic composition of their respective teams, with either loss holding massive implications for potential league and national championship runs.

Pastner is confident Johnson will behave during his two-year stay at Memphis (Photo credit: Greg Bartram/US Presswire).

While the NCAA explores the recruitments of these two high-profile stars, diligently turning over every rock in an attempt to unearth legitimate evidence of illicit recruiting activity and expending considerable resources in doing so, Memphis on Thursday officially welcomed the newest member of its 2012 recruiting class. Geron Johnson, a highly-touted shooting guard from Dayton and the third member of the Tigers’ class, is eligible to play for the Tigers next season. Johnson is, in short, of questionable character. He has a long history of off-court transgressions, from marijuana charges to an attempted burglary in high school to allegations of stealing another student’s cell phone. Since graduating high school as a top-100 recruit in the Class of 2010, Johnson has been defined as much by criminal misconduct as his talent on the basketball court. After enrolling at two junior collages – Chipola College (FL) and Garden City College (KS), both of which revoked his membership after separate transgressions – Johnson resurfaced on the 2012 recruiting market as one of the greatest risk/reward prospects in recent memory. Does tremendous ability on the basketball court override significant character red flags? Is Johnson worth the trouble? Memphis coach Josh Pastner certainly thought so, to the point where he felt comfortable offering Johnson a scholarship, who promptly fulfilled the school’s academic requirements and gained clearance to play for the Tigers in the upcoming season. There are no potential academic or eligibility roadblocks standing in his way, and the NCAA has no grounds on which to block his immediate enrollment at Memphis. Johnson, bearing  a resume most employers would instinctively reject, will play two years on scholarship, provided his future behavior doesn’t prompt a third consecutive expulsion.

From a strictly legislative standpoint, the NCAA is operating within its bounds. Muhammad and Noel are possible violators of the organization’s fundamental goal of preserving amateurism in college athletics. This is standard procedure. The NCAA is simply doing its due diligence – and rightfully so – to poke around and make sure the nation’s two best incoming players were not swayed to attend any particular school by third-party dealings on the recruiting market. As for Johnson, there is no historical precedent for NCAA punishment of student-athletes for criminal acts (nor am I advocating the organization’s involvement in policing this type of behavior); these are matters to be handled by athletes’ respective institutions and the American justice system. Johnson’s past injustices were addressed by school officials, and so the NCAA has no incentive to suddenly step in and renounce his eligibility. But if Muhammad and Noel, neither of whom carry criminal backgrounds into their college careers, face questions over their ability to play this season while Johnson joins Memphis cleared of all previous wrongdoing (as far as the NCAA is concerned), there is something seriously flawed with the governing system. The miscast priority runs counterproductive to the NCAA’s stated moral obligation to function as the vigilant and protective ruling body of college athletics. The NCAA’s mission statement on rules compliance  reads as follows:

The NCAA enforcement program strives to maintain a level playing field for the more than 400,000 student-athletes. Commitment to fair play is a bedrock principle of the NCAA. The NCAA upholds that principle by enforcing membership-created rules that ensure equitable competition and protect the well-being of student-athletes at all member institutions.

The first part of that statement – “to maintain a level playing field” – is where investigations of Noel and Muhammad make absolute sense. Providing impermissible benefits or monetary incentive for a player to attend a specific program disrupts that idyllic competitive balance. Each program, in a strictly legal sense, has equal leverage in attracting the nation’s top basketball recruits. Advantages – tradition, coaches, practice facilities, etc. – in that regard are lawfully built in to each institution. In the eyes of the NCAA, the top players can attend the likes of UCLA and Kentucky and other blueblood programs not because of illicitly-influenced recruitments but for the allure of enrolling at historic programs and playing in marquee arenas in front of rabid fan bases in nationally televised games. The NCAA wants to ensure such motivations were the only ones in play for Muhammad and Noel. Johnson and his criminal background, on the other hand, call into question the final clause: “protect the well-being of student-athletes at all member institutions.” For a player with as much off-court baggage as Johnson, allowing him to operate within the NCAA’s legal confines appears on its face to be a violation of that principle. After all, while there’s no guarantee Johnson will continue his criminal behavior at Memphis, his prior history suggests that his presence could endanger those around him. Johnson’s reputation points to repeated acts of a criminal nature, deplorable behavior that endangered his peers at other institutions. If ever a student-athlete were capable of threatening the “well-being” of student-athletes, Johnson appears a likely candidate. Wouldn’t his removal from the intercollegiate athletic landscape represent a step toward maintaining that stated purpose?

And yet he will join Josh Pastner at one of the nation’s premier basketball programs this fall with immediate eligibility. The NCAA is investing considerable amounts of time, manpower and resources to sniff out Noel’s and Muhammad’s suspicious recruitment histories. But when it comes to criminal wrongdoing, and protecting the welfare of college communities, Johnson’s unsettling track record rings hollow. Noel and Muhammad are under scrutiny for exercising basic principles of capitalism; Johnson is, definitively, a criminal. The NCAA has chosen to pursue the former. It doesn’t seem justifiable, ethical or respectable. But it’s nonetheless par for the course in today’s world of intercollegiate athletics.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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