Duke, Lance Thomas and the NCAA’s “strict liability”

Could Mike Krzyzewski’s program get the same scrutiny as John Calipari’s? Dan Wetzel asks this question at Yahoo.

From the headline and the first few paragraphs, you might think it’s simply a question of whether the sanctimonious NCAA will look the other way when a case involves a much-touted model program like Duke. But Wetzel isn’t one of these knee-jerk Duke-bashers waiting to see Coach K and company get their come-uppance. (Disclaimer, in case you don’t know: I have two degrees from Duke.) He raises much more difficult questions.

First, shouldn’t athletes have a little more freedom to cash in on the money and prestige they’re bringing to their schools? That’s a big one addressed only in passing here, and Wetzel focuses on the next one:

Second, is the NCAA’s “strict liability” policy simply overkill?

That question is usually raised in more sympathetic circumstances. A 17-year-old kid gets stranded without a ride or without dinner money, a booster gives him a ride or a hamburger, and voila — the school’s in trouble.

Thomas, at least as portrayed in this lawsuit, isn’t a kid stuck without a ride. The suit says he had money for a lot of jewelry and insinuated he could pay the rest. (Bear in mind: I don’t recall people talking up Thomas, a good college role player, as a sure-fire NBA prospect.)

This isn’t the first time Duke has been in this situation. Corey Maggette had a much more damaging case against him — taking money directly from the wonderfully named AAU hoops coach Myron Piggie. That money would theoretically make Maggette ineligible. And so people often ask: Why are other schools punished for “strict liability” while Duke isn’t?

Wetzel, again, didn’t write his column to snipe at Duke. He doesn’t think Duke knew about Thomas’ jewelry or gained any competitive advantage from it:

It’s unlikely Krzyzewski knew about this purchase. Smart money says Thomas hid the jewelry from any member of the Duke staff. Right now Coach K is probably furious and mortified. There is very little benefit to having a starting forward blanketing himself in jewelry and winding up embroiled in a lawsuit. The diamonds didn’t draw Thomas to Duke. They didn’t maintain his academic eligibility. They didn’t make him stronger or faster.

And the same is likely true for the Maggette-Piggie case. But it was likely true for Memphis and John Calipari when it had results stripped away because of a recruit’s test scores were fishy.

Wetzel thinks the Thomas case may be enough to more people question the mighty NCAA:

The NCAA can’t ignore this because it’s Duke, but if it’s Duke that loses its national title over a jewelry-store loan, of all things, how can the NCAA continue to ignore that its entire busted rulebook?

I’m a little more skeptical just because I’m used to seeing people gloat over my alma mater’s problems — to my knowledge, there’s no book called “Memphis Sucks” — but I can also imagine Dick Vitale screaming for years if Duke loses its 2010 title over this case.

Here’s the underlying problem: The NCAA can only punish athletes while they’re still playing in college. If the NCAA knew Maggette had taken money from Piggie before he finished his one year at Duke, Maggette wouldn’t have finished out the season.

Instead, the NCAA goes after the institution. Even if the institution had nothing to do with it.

Let’s toss out a solution and see if any lawyers can speak up:

Suppose the NCAA and all its colleges included a clause in scholarship offers stating that any misrepresentation of their “amateur” status would result in a forfeiture of their scholarship money plus fines.

So in that case, the NCAA would tell Maggette to pay up. And Maggette, who has carved out a long NBA career racking up big stats for bad teams, would need to send a check.┬áThomas’ jewelry would be a matter between him and the jewelry store.

And let Duke, Memphis or every other school worry about the normal business of college sports — practicing only during prescribed periods, meticulously counting the text messages they send recruits, that sort of thing.