NCAA had little leeway in Lance Thomas case

lkeeley@newsobserver.comMay 8, 2013 

A college senior who played Division I basketball went into a midtown Manhattan jewelry store and bought five pieces of custom jewelry worth nearly $100,000. He put down $30,000 and received a 15-day loan to cover the remaining $67,800 balance. He defaulted on the payment, and, two years later, the jeweler sued him for the remainder. The lawsuit was settled out of court, and neither party talked to the NCAA.

Those are the only known facts in the case involving former Duke basketball player Lance Thomas and the Manhattan-based jeweler, Rafaello and Co. Neither party nor anyone else has explained where the down payment came from or how Thomas secured the loan.

Without knowing that, there wasn’t enough information for the NCAA to find any potential violations (such as an extra benefit) or dole out disciplinary action. Duke released a statement last week saying, “The NCAA has found no evidence of a rules violation in this situation based on the information available, and both the NCAA and Duke consider the matter closed.”

Compliance experts expected that outcome.

“I’m not surprised,” said David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University who has testified before Congress on compliance issues. “I’m not reading too much into it and thinking this is a Duke thing or a cover-up or anything like that.

“More than anything, it shows from the 30,000 foot level that there may be some flaws in the process.”

There are limits to the NCAA’s power. The regulatory body doesn’t have subpoena power, so people outside of the NCAA’s purview – anyone other than current college coaches or administrators and student-athletes – can’t be compelled to talk.

Thomas, as a former student-athlete, was under no obligation to speak to the NCAA. Neither was the jeweler.

In a December interview, Gabriel Jacobs, the owner of Rafaello and Co., said there are no set prices for custom jewelry. Several factors, including labor and the price of gold and diamonds at the time of the purchase, determine the purchase price. And as the owner, Jacobs has full discretion to decide the terms of his business dealings.

“If Joe Schmo walks in and tells me I’m whoever I am, it’s my decision to give them whatever I want to give them,” Jacobs said. “It’s in my hands to do that. It’s my decision. It’s my money. It’s nobody else’s money. If I want to do that, I’ll do it.”

Thomas, currently with the New Orleans Pelicans, said in October that “eventually” he would talk to the NCAA. He also told the Associated Press that he didn’t think he broke any NCAA rules.

"I’m still working on that, but I’ll eventually speak to them," Thomas said, referring to a few legal details that needed to be finalized before talking to the NCAA. “Everything will come out, but it will come out on the better end, hopefully."

That’s the only time Thomas has spoken publicly about the case. He hasn’t responded to multiple calls for comment.

Thomas was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in Scotch Plains, N.J. He played for two years at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High before transferring to St. Benedict’s, where he played for Danny Hurley, the brother of former Duke star Bobby Hurley. Thomas’s mother, Lily Irvin, is a manager at a Ford plant, according to a Duke media guide. That job has a wide salary range, depending on the size of the plant.

Without information from Thomas and the jeweler, the NCAA had few options when it attempted to investigate.

“When you look at this case and these types of cases, you have to look at it in a sense of what the NCAA can prove,” said John Infante, a former compliance officer at the Division I level and author of the popular Bylaw blog. “If you want Duke to be punished in this case, then you’re saying going forward, as a precedent, you’re basically requiring athletes to explain where all their nice things come from.”

Earlier this season, former UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad drew attention when was seen with a Gucci backpack valued at nearly $1,000. His sister, Asia, tweeted that it was a gift from her and their mother. Muhammad had been suspended for three games for receiving impermissible benefits during high school, and his suspension likely would have been longer had the boyfriend of an NCAA investigator not been overheard on a flight bragging that Muhammad would not be cleared until the NCAA had gathered more facts.

The investigator, Abigail Grantstein, was fired, the first in a string of embarrassing incidents for the NCAA. Investigator Ameen Najjar had been fired last year before it was revealed in January that he approved putting the lawyer for rogue Miami booster Nevin Shapiro on the NCAA’s payroll. That decision forced the NCAA to admit to a “very severe case of improper misconduct” in the Miami investigation. Julie Roe Lach, the handpicked vice president of enforcement by NCAA president Mark Emmert, also was fired as a result of that mishap.

The NCAA appointed John Duncan, a lawyer who has defended the NCAA in court, to an 18-month stint as vice president of enforcement.

“Bringing in someone like John Duncan, who doesn’t have a great amount of experience, leaves a void at the top,” Ridpath said. “Even when they’re fully staffed, you’re talking 30 investigators, max, for three divisions of thousands of schools, so I’ve always thought that they were shorthanded. One of my main criticisms has always been that they try to do things on the cheap and try to find the best outcome in the quickest possible fashion, although it might seem like it, just to present the façade that they’re actually policing college athletics.”

There aren’t any easy solutions for fixing the NCAA’s enforcement system. Ridpath and Infante would like the NCAA to be able to issue subpoenas. But that would require major changes to the enforcement system, with something similar to the criminal justice system in place with a larger role for attorneys and an innocent until proven guilty mantra (which would prevent situations like Muhammad’s, where he was suspended before the NCAA had all the facts to make a full judgment).

But Emmert has said he has no interest in moving toward that direction.

“We’re not a state actor, don’t want to be a state actor,” he said at a press conference during the Final Four. “ There will always be limitations to what can and can’t be done.”

With that in mind, the Thomas decision is certainly no surprise.

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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