The Court of Public Opinion Has Reached A Consensus On Nerlens Noel and Lance ThomasPosted by Chris Johnson on October 2nd, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
In today’s college hoops landscape, where impermissible benefits scandals are widespread and recruiting at elite programs is synonymous with agents, boosters and other money-wielding nefarious third parties, first impressions are the only ones that matter. The smallest hint of violation or prohibited activity spawns a massive rush to judgment, and a public consensus is reached before the alleged ever has a chance to prove their innocence. There’s a confirmation bias at work here, one borne of the outwardly seedy atmosphere hovering over the sport of late. Players are deemed outlaws, whether fairly or otherwise, before administrative procedures run their course. It’s not at all fair, or just, but until the NCAA or some other higher power steps in to clean up recruiting tactics and minimize the influence of illicit financial intermediaries – or at least imposes stricter policies that work towards those ends – suspicion and rapidly-conceived conclusions will remain the norm. It’s gotten to the point where procedural due process has lost credibility: The culture surrounding college basketball, not the actual terms of violation (or lack thereof), or the players themselves, has produced a general skepticism and mistrust about the behind-the-scenes work that keeps elite programs afloat.
This nearsighted logic is applied without restraint to the recruitment of one-and-done high school players. Kentucky’s John Calipari, clean recruiting track record aside, has assumed an air of suspicion in regards to his prospect-hunting tactics. Whether it’s the annual success he’s established and sustained on the recruiting trail – it’s almost a surprise when Calipari doesn’t reel in the top class in the country – or the overwhelming hatred of the NBA age limit, the one-and-done system and the way Calipari has maneuvered it to perfection, or a simple jealous aversion to the regional and national dominance of Kentucky during his tenure, Calipari’s recruiting exploits (and the fruits thereof) are received with trepidation. It’s not just fans. The perception exists among an overwhelming majority of college coaches, too. Calipari’s latest recruiting gem, 2012 big man Nerlens Noel, provided some perspective over the weekend on the pervasive angst opposing coaches harbor against the Kentucky coach’s top prospects. Sports Illustrated got some insight from Noel, along with a handful of other elite recruits (such as 2013 forward Julius Randle and Kansas commit Brannen Greene), about the oft-discussed topic of negative recruiting, whereby coaches bad-mouth competing programs in an attempt to dissuade their target from attending those programs. It’s foul, indecent and a clear low-blow. But it’s out there. And coaches, particularly desperate ones, use the gambit to strengthen their case while blasting their competitors. But for Noel, the ruse backfired. When one anonymous coach implied Noel’s recruiting process was financially-intertwined, the Tilton (NH) product was downright insulted.
“I was shocked that he would say something crazy like that,” said Noel, the No. 2 player in the Rivals 150 last season. “Of course I would never accept money and of course Kentucky never offered me money, but to hear that from him turned me off. I didn’t hold it against him because I know coaches get jealous at times. I just look at it like they’re really just insecure about themselves.”
Suspicion is fair — The NCAA has inquired about Noel’s recruiting process — though not to the extent of expressly alleging financial influence, because, remember, there hasn’t been any notice of violations or eligibility hiccups. While not a direct shot at Calipari himself, it’s a general slight on the process Calipari oversees and a tacit posit of guilt. It proves that not only fans but coaches have misgivings about Calipari’s (and, more broadly, college basketball’s) recruiting methods. But that underlying apprehension isn’t limited to Calipari and Kentucky, nor can it be confined to recruiting. It extends to high-profile players’ time spent on campus, players like Lance Thomas, who, as you know by now, dropped nearly $100,000 ($30,000 up front, $67,800 in credit) at world-renowned New York jeweler Rafaello & Co. during his senior season at Duke, but appears to have left little in the way of loose ends or legal angles for NCAA personnel to look into the case. Thomas, in an unexpected and somewhat puzzling opening-up to the media – with the NCAA still searching for information and/or possible leads, Thomas only risks incriminating himself before the four-year statute of limitations expires – confirmed Monday to the media that he hasn’t talked to Duke or the NCAA about the ordeal, but that he doesn’t believe he committed an NCAA violation. “No, I don’t think so,” Thomas responded when asked about a possible NCAA transgression.
There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about Thomas’ comments. Even if he did in fact use his status as a then-future NBA player to leverage third-party financial assistance for a jewelry splurge, Thomas probably wouldn’t say as much. But given the facts at hand, the preponderance of the evidence pointing to a textbook impermissible benefits violation, the eventual resolution of this situation – which looks less promising by the day unless the NCAA gets a much-needed hand from an anonymous source – will matter not to how Thomas is perceived going forward. In the collective mind of the college hoops public, Thomas is a cheater, even if Duke gets off without but the slightest punitive wrist slap. In a similar vein, the perception plagues Noel. While the specifics may differ, Noel’s recruitment, and whether he may or may not have received money, has already garnered some level of apprehension. As Noel revealed to SI, coaches have bought into the negative hype – the belief that, despite a lack of evidence supporting the contention, top-tier recruits like Noel are paid no matter what. Sure, the anonymous coach’s comment was more a dig on Calipari than the sport itself. But it showed that coaches are not immune to the rapidly-processed quick judgment labeling that inheres today’s college hoops environment. It’s these types of unreasonably-wrought presumptions that personify the negative side of college hoops – the lingering doubts about the legality of players, coaches and programs’ operations and transactions – and serve to construct a longstanding perception that, as far as I can tell, isn’t going away anytime soon.