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The NCAA v. Shabazz Muhammad: Where We Stand

The next step in Abigail Grantstein and the NCAA's prosecution of Shabazz Muhammmad comes later today. Will the NCAA take this case out of the shadows and present whatever evidence it holds?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Sometime today, the NCAA will announce its decision in response to UCLA's appeal of a finding that Shabazz Muhammad is currently ineligible to play college basketball. I really don't know what is going to happen - what the ruling on the merits of Morgan Center's appeal will be, or (if denied) what the final ruling in terms of the degree of severity of the violation will be and how long 'Bazz would have to sit out, or if he can even suit up in the blue and gold at all.

Until about 36 hours ago, I assumed that the NCAA would shoot down the appeal without much thought or real consideration. That the association would stick by the case and conclusions put together by its investigative staff. Barring any bombshells arising out of the final moments of the investigation, the real debate would come over the following few days, over the terms of granting collegiate eligibility - if offered - to Shabazz. Of course, there was a bombshell arising out of the dying moments of the case. Rather than evidence of an OJ Mayo-like paper bag of cash, or some other severe piece of misconduct on the Muhammad family's part, It was the death of any credibility held by the NCAA's investigation itself.

The appearance that the NCAA prejudged Shabazz's case really does flip the script: An intelligent, reasonable body faced with the judgment of its investigator having been compromised would - barring solid evidence of wrongdoing - compromise with the other parties. That is the one thing I don't expect from the NCAA. They might see that the credibility of its case has collapsed and simply let 'Bazz play. They might double down, ignore the events of the past couple of days or take it out on Shabazz.

The basics of the procedural case, as it currently stands, is this: After a lengthy investigation by employees of the NCAA, the association ruled last Friday that Shabazz is not currently eligible to compete for UCLA due to violations of the NCAA's rules regarding amateurism. The events which led to the violations cited by the NCAA can be divided into two parts: a series of three unofficial visits to two NCAA member schools (known to be Duke and UNC); and "other pending issues". The statement went on to say that the NCAA and UCLA were able to agree on a core set of facts in the case.

We can assume that UCLA is not agreeing to a set of facts which would reasonably lead to Shabazz's long-term ineligibility. If there were some 'smoking gun' in the NCAA's possession that is credible and would permanently threaten eligibility, there would be little need or incentive to put on a charade of fighting this case rather than simply begin to move on. The NCAA's statement discussed the unofficial trips taken to Duke and UNC as the core portion of the case and any forthcoming sanctions that Shabazz will be subject to.

The NCAA's case asserts that the financing of these trips (paid for by Benjamin Lincoln, a friend of 'Bazz's dad) violated the NCAA's amateurism rules, while UCLA and the Muhammad family claim that the duration and closeness of Mr. Lincoln's friendship with the family falls into an exception contained in the NCAA bylaws which allows for certain non-family members to provide measures of financial assistance to a recruit and his/her family. The attorney for the Muhammad family released a statement in the wake of the above NCAA release.

For over a year, the NCAA has known all of the relevant facts related to its ruling last Friday. Prior to the unofficial visits in question, Ron Holmes and Benjamin Lincoln received approval from NCAA (through its member universities) for Mr. Lincoln (who has had a continuous close friendship with Shabazz’s family since 2007) to pay for airline tickets and hotel rooms.

To be honest, that claim of approval is a bit of lawyer-speak. While some folks have picked up on that statement to claim that the NCAA had given its blessing to the unofficial visits before it didn't, it actually does not say anything that we did already know: that the compliance offices of the Duke and UNC athletic departments believed the trips to be acceptable under NCAA rules given the information they were presented.

The Duke and UNC compliance departments are not direct agents of the NCAA: they interpret the association's rules for the benefit of the department and those associated with it, but their judgment does not substitute for a final judgment of right or wrong by the NCAA. But while their findings on a compliance issue do not control in the face of an NCAA investigation, they provide a reasonable place for a non-party observer to look when there is a dispute between the association and a player. Whatever you might think of those two universities and their athletic programs, they have extensive experience dealing with elite-level high school basketball prospects, and the unique issues that surround many such young men. To paraphrase the NCAA's ruling against Reggie Bush and Southern Cal, these compliance departments are well-versed in dealing with high profile athletes and the greater vigilance required in clearing and supervising them.

Of course, Duke and UNC could have both been presented with the financial details of the trips, and simply misinterpreted the NCAA rules, or misunderstood the relationship between the parties (the Muhammad family's statement asserts that those schools got the same info on the trips as was given to the NCAA). But, the problem is that at the heart of the divide between the NCAA and a finding of ineligibility, and UCLA/Shabazz and a finding of permissible assistance and eligibility is a difference in opinion regarding a family friendship. That is not something that can easily be quantified by spreadsheets and bank statements.

For an outsider having to make that kind of determination requires some interpretation of the hard evidence, but also some kind of intuition. We have found out this week that the NCAA employee charged with running this case entered the investigation with a bias against Shabazz and his family, thinking them to be corrupt, dirty and in sum a person whom she would never allow to play under the auspices of her NCAA. In a case which required fair interpretation of personal details and relationships as well as finding the facts, Shabazz never had a chance.

We can all be thankful that the investigator's bias has come to light while the case is still in progress - and to the woman who heard about the bias and did not let it go. But Shabazz came close to losing, just a few days from seeing his collegiate eligibility buried by a dirty process. Given the lack of interest which the NCAA showed upon first being informed of this allegation of prejudgment, and talk of nebulous "Pending issues" that UCLA may or may not know the details of, the fight is not yet over. Abigail and the NCAA may yet have the final laugh. I doubt anyone on that side of the case has much interest in an honest and open assessment of the investigation and the case which resulted.

Andrew Sharp wrote a very good piece on Shabazz and this newly-evident aspect to the NCAA's mess for the main SBN hub yesterday. It is worth a read if you have not gotten to it - we have placed it on the front page of BN for the time being. Plenty to take in from it, but these couple of paragraphs stuck out to me about Shabazz, but also the larger picture of how the NCAA operates.

You just never know when the NCAA is going to decide to go on a witch hunt and turn a kid's life upside down for a few months. If Shabazz Muhammad had gone to Duke, he might be in the clear right now. Likewise, if John Wall had gone to Baylor instead of Kentucky, maybe he never plays a second in college. You just never know!

The truth is that the NCAA decided to target Muhammad a long time ago, only they still can't prove any wrongdoing. They think he took money, they think he had a relationship with Adidas that led him to UCLA, and they have no proof of anything, so they're suspending him while they try to find anything that might stick. If this sounds like a paranoid theory with no proof, well, we're only following the NCAA's lead.