Lance Thomas Case Ends With A Whimper – Don’t Act SurprisedPosted by Chris Johnson on May 1st, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Recent high-profile enforcement foibles have done nothing to enhance the NCAA’s reputation as an objective arbiter of student-athlete compliance. From the perceived power trip smack down leveled at Penn State in the wake of last year’s Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal to the organization’s admitted screw-up in the Nevin Shapiro case and president Mark Emmert’s long-winded obfuscating filibuster at his annual Final Four news conference – the NCAA ‘s reputation has been tossed through the public relations grinder more often than ever in the past year or so. Anything short of a leadership change or, more likely, a complete overhaul of the amateurism-based economic model, the ethical verbal take downs will pile on each and every time the slightest bit of controversy creeps up.
Tuesday’s news offered another critical entry point. If fans and media were already skeptical of the NCAA’s enforcement imperatives, the sneaking suspicions that certain distinguished programs are given more leeway in how their violations are monitored, the completely inconclusive resolution of former Duke forward Lance Thomas’ jewelry case adds more kerosene to the proverbial skepticism hype machine.
At the start, everything appeared to be lining up for a textbook impermissible benefits smack down. Thomas, a forward on Duke’s 2010 national championship team, reportedly made a $30,000 down payment in December 2009 during a non-conference road trip at glitzy New York Jeweler Rafaello & Co., and was simultaneously extended a $70,000 line of credit to pay off the rest of his almost $100,000 bling spree. There were questions to be asked – where, exactly, does a college senior get 30 grand of spending money? Did Thomas use his influence as a Duke basketball player to secure financial assistance? How on earth did a reputable New York jeweler agree to spot the better part of ¾ of Thomas’ nearly six-figure swag money-drop with no obvious recourse to get to the bottom of them/ Those questions were answered Tuesday, and that answer, via a statement released by university officials to The News & Observer, was a big collective sigh of Blue Devils relief: no sanctions, no recruiting wrist slaps, no anything. Guilt-free.
There are a number of ways to approach this ruling. Astonishment is not one of them. The NCAA has no real subpoena power, and neither Thomas nor Rafaello & Co. had any legal motivation to come clean with whatever impropriety may or may not have been involved in the transaction. They did not even have to speak to the NCAA let alone agree to be subjected to an adversarial hearing on potential violations or even stand in front of the dreaded “committee on infractions.” Emmert talks a big game, which is what every NCAA boss at least purports to do in the public eye; it’s just that he doesn’t have the legislative heft to back up his heavy-fisted intentions.
The NCAA had run into an enforcement dead end, and as the details trickled out with greater and greater anticipation of an expected Blue Devils bombshell – the type of thing that could legitimately derail Coach K’s immaculate 900-win hoops kingdom – it sort of looked like Thomas and Duke might wind up getting off completely clean, and with all manner of non-Duke partisan outcry reverberating in the background. You would never touch Coach K’s program! I want sanctions, lots of them! What makes Duke so special!
Enforcement war hawks will writhe away in anticipatory disgust. Columns will be written. Royal blue flags burned (ok, maybe not). Just when it looked like the armor had cracked, when Duke was on the brink of devastating student-athlete misconduct, something gets in the way. Because something always gets in the way. I can understand that line of thinking. Duke is no stranger to the “holier than thou” meme among bitter college fans. Non-Duke supporters sneer anytime the Blue Devils run into even the smallest hints of NCAA infringement. But if you’re going to question the NCAA’s opaque enforcement protocols, its curiously selective application of various sanctions, make sure credible and legally-grounded grievances are brought forth.
The NCAA was powerless from the outset, and remains so months later, well after all the smoke had faded from the college sports’ scandal horizon. Duke was never in any real trouble – not because this is Duke, or because Coach K and a national championship and a spotless resume is involved, but because the NCAA is much less powerful than it deigns to be. Once you divorce Emmert’s dictatorial persona from the flimsy enforcement vehicle he oversees, that reality is much easier to digest.