LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A decade or so ago, in a long series about the coming financial fracturing of college sports, a news-side editor who, as we say in the vernacular, "wasn't from around here," saw the letters "NCAA" in the lead of my story and suggested that they needed to be explained.
As in, "The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the nation's largest and most influential college sports sanctioning body . . . "
For me, it was tantamount to needing the explainer clause, "The Roman Catholic Church, the world's largest Christian church organization . . . "
They say in life only two things are certain: death and taxes. But around these parts, such certainty forms a kind of trinity: death, taxes and the NCAA.
The first two are doing a robust business. The third, however, may be teetering.
Today, as part of an investigation into its own wrongdoing in pursuing alleged violations at Miami, the NCAA fired enforcement vice president Julie Roe Lach as the executive ultimately responsible for the NCAA making impermissible payments to the attorney of convicted Ponzi schemer and Miami booster Nevin Shapiro. The payments, and working with Shapiro's attorney, violated the NCAA's own code of ethics.
That name took me back a dozen years. I've had only two in-depth run-ins with NCAA enforcement, and Roe Lach was in the middle of one of them.
I remembered when she sat on a witness stand in Louisville while attorney James Milliman fired an incredulous line of questioning at her. He was trying to get a reasonable explanation for why the NCAA believed that Muhamed Lasege, a University of Louisville student, should not be given the opportunity to play college sports.
Lasege left his native Nigeria and wound up with a basketball club in Russia. Armed guards "escorted" the players to and from practice. When one player refused, his knee was bashed in. The NCAA called those goons, "chauffeurs" and ruled that they were a perk and an impermissible benefit.
The Russian club held the players' passports, told them that they would work them out and use contacts with American college coaches to get them an opportunity to play college basketball in the U.S.
The players were presented with "work agreements" in a language that was not their language of origin, and even though they were minors, were urged to sign. They did. Those documents, which would've been illegal in any court in this country (except, as it turned out, the Kentucky Supreme Court), ended up being defined by the NCAA as contracts with a sports agent, and were used as part of the rationale for banning Lasege from playing college basketball forever. Lasege did receive some impermissible benefits on his way to the U.S. and repaid those, but it wasn't enough.
I remember Milliman asking Roe Lach if she could, with a straight face, honestly say she believed Lasege acted with an "intent to professionalize" in basketball. She did.
Lasege was not a star player. In the 14 games he played while U of L was under a court order to allow him to participate, he was not a major factor, despite being 6-10 and very athletic.
But Lasege was smart. He studied. And when the NCAA banned him, U of L coach Rick Pitino continued to work with him privately. He also worked to continue to fund Lasege's education. Lasege graduated from college and went to work for Humana. When a visa snafu forced him to leave the country, Pitino urged him to put his basketball talent to use. Lasege did that. He went to Iran and played professionally, not to live the dream of playing basketball, but to save up money for graduate school.
Get this, he played basketball professionally as a means to an education, and when he had saved up enough, he returned to the states and won admission to the prestigious Wharton School of Business at Penn, with his story of his NCAA struggles serving as a centerpiece of his admissions interviews.
Today, Lasege has gone pro, like the NCAA commercial says, in something other than sports. That was his "intent to professionalalize" all along. He is an executive with Exxon, living in Texas, and he and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their first child.
Lasege is and was everything college sports should be about -- what the NCAA itself should be about.
But the NCAA has gotten away from what it should be about.
Lasege's quest was my first real look at the NCAA in action. It would not be my last.
The NCAA crossed its own ethical line in the Miami case, in short, because in its zeal to nail Miami in what is, by any account, a major instance of blatant cheating, it strayed from its own mission and mandate. In other words, it went over the top.
I've watched up close as the NCAA went over the top in pursuit of another athlete -- Marvin Stone.
He had transferred from Kentucky to Louisville before his senior season, and near the end of his senior year, the NCAA came after him. It actually was after his AAU coach, Mark Komara, but was using possible violations in Stone's past to try to get to this coach.
With Stone's college career winding down, the NCAA struck before he could use up his eligibility and no longer be compelled to speak with its enforcement officials.
Charge after charge, Stone, the U of L compliance office and Stone's attorney, Don Jackson, answered promptly. Time after time, the NCAA then moved on to another issue.
NCAA enforcement official Deana Garner interviewed Stone for 2 1/2 hours on Feb. 23, 2003, then called him back at 11 p.m. that night and asked him 30 minutes' worth of new questions.
Garner wanted to speak to Stone's mother, but his attorney said no. U of L then hired its own attorney and, on the NCAA's advice, benched Stone on March 2. He was cleared to play on March 4, but on March 7 he was benched again with new questions. This led to a conference call -- during which Stone missed two classes, though the NCAA offered to reschedule when it ran long and into his class time -- with the NCAA wanting to know the particulars of about a dozen Western Union money transfers made out to Stone.
Most were from family or approved sources, but Garner went after Stone about a $450 money order addressed to him in Atlanta. She said she called the phone number on the money order and said the man who answered said, "This is Marvin." Garner told Stone, "It was your voice." But there was a problem. While she was asking questions, Stone's attorney called the number and got this other Marvin Stone on the phone. Marvin Stone the basketball player was 6-10 and on the phone with the NCAA. Marvin Stone, the recipient of this $450 money order, turned out to be a 53-year-old project engineer for Marriott. And he was ticked off.
Speaking to me in an interview for The Courier-Journal, he said:
"I got that money from someone in Louisville for a personal thing to take care of, and it isn't anybody's business. I don't like that they had a copy of the Western Union paper, and even so, why didn't they just call and talk to me and ask about it? It would have taken them five minutes. Instead, they try and use it to hurt a college basketball player. You're not going to confuse us. He's 6-10 and I'm 5-7.
"The lawyer who called me (Jackson) tried to put me onto the line to talk to them, but they didn't want to talk to me. All of a sudden I hear this woman from the NCAA (Garner), and she's hollering. She doesn't want to talk to me, doesn't want my number. She just went off. I couldn't believe she was a lawyer. It was almost like listening to a scolding of a child: ‘You don't tell me what to do.' No profanity, but a very authoritative tone. And I'm asking myself what did I do? I'm the one who has had his privacy invaded. I don't appreciate it."
That indignation was a glimpse into NCAA enforcement that I had not seen. You have to be tough to be an investigator. But the human tendency to begin to take these investigations personally, in an adversarial role, happens more than anyone probably knows.
It certainly seemed to happen in the Miami case. Seeing what little I'd seen close-up of NCAA enforcement, I can't say I'm surprised.