The NCAA has communicated with Duke after a New York jeweler filed a lawsuit against former Blue Devils starter Lance Thomas.
Thomas purchased $97,800 worth of jewelry with a $30,000 down payment at Rafaello & Company on Dec. 21, 2009, according to an Associated Press report.
Thomas’ purchase came while the Duke basketball team had dispersed for its holiday break after the Blue Devils’ Dec. 19 victory over Gonzaga in Madison Square Garden.
The team had a few days off before preparing for its Dec. 29 home game against Long Beach State. In that time, Thomas purchased five pieces of diamond jewelry at the Manhattan jeweler, not far from his Scotch Plains, N.J., residence just outside the city.
Now, Rafaello & Co. is suing Thomas for the remaining $67,800, which he agreed to pay within 15 days of his purchase. The lawsuit was filed in Texas in January.
Two pivotal questions could potentially impact Duke: How did Thomas acquire the cash for the down payment, and did he use his status as an athlete to get a loan for the remaining $67,800?
According to the NCAA bylaw 16.01.3, receiving a benefit “is not a violation if it is demonstrated that the same general benefit is available to the institution’s students, their relatives, and friends determined on a basis unrelated to athletics ability.”
Jon Jackson, Duke associate athletic director for media relations, declined to comment beyond his Friday statement that Duke was aware of the lawsuit and looking into it. The AP reported Friday that Duke and the NCAA have communicated about the issue. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was unavailable for comment Saturday.
If Thomas is found to have received an extra benefit, the NCAA could rule him ineligible, which could put Duke’s national championship at risk. Thomas played in 40 games that season. He played 35 minutes and scored six points in Duke’s 61-59 victory over Butler in the championship game.
If Thomas received an extra benefit, it might not matter whether Duke knew of his purchase. In 2009, the NCAA ruled that Memphis had to vacate its 2008 season, including its Final Four appearance, because Derrick Rose was retroactively ruled ineligible for a fraudulent SAT score. The NCAA coined the term “strict liability” and concluded that it didn’t matter that Memphis didn’t know Rose was ineligible.
“The institution’s assertion that, prior to the start of the 2007-08 season, it did not have sufficient information to conclude that student-athlete 1’s SAT test would be cancelled was not relevant under the circumstances,” the NCAA wrote.
The “strict liability” ruling broke from the precedent established in the NCAA’s handling of former Duke player Corey Maggette, a member of the Blue Devils’ 1999 Final Four squad. Maggette left Duke for the NBA draft after that season. In 2000, after a federal grand jury indictment was released, Maggette admitted to receiving cash payments from Myron Piggie, a summer basketball coach, before arriving at Duke.
The NCAA investigated and ruled in 2004 that Duke did not and should not have known about the payments, so there was no punishment.
NCAA added bylaw 184.108.40.206 in 2005. It states “a head coach is presumed to have knowledge of what is occurring in his program and therefore, can be responsible for the actions of his staff and individuals associated with the program.”
In the wake of the Memphis “strict liability” decision, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors proposed a change to the bylaw this August that’s designed to make head coaches more responsible for their programs.
“Rather than focusing on knowledge, or the presumption of knowledge, the bylaw is amended to presume only responsibility,” the board wrote. “Accordingly, if violations happen in a program, the head coach is presumed responsible (instead of knowledgeable, and therefore, responsible) for not promoting an atmosphere of compliance and/ or monitoring his or her staff.”
The change is set to take effect Aug. 1, 2013.
Mike Bowers, the Dallas-based attorney for Rafaello & Co., said his client waited more than two years to file the suit against Thomas because the jeweler had been trying to collect its money.
“There were efforts taken by my client to secure payment,” Bowers said. “Obviously the lawsuit was an option that unfortunately came to pass when arrangements could not be made to secure payment.”
John Spencer, Thomas’ Durham-based agent, referred comment to Joe Crews, Thomas’ Austin-based attorney. Crews did not return a voicemail left Saturday.
Spencer began representing Thomas in April 2011. Thomas signed his first 10-day contract with the New Orleans Hornets in December 2011 and appeared in 42 games, starting 10, last season. He has a non-guaranteed contact for next year that would pay him $762,195.
“I was not aware of anything going on before that time,” Spencer said when asked about Thomas’s 2009 purchase.
The Associated Press contributed .