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.