Kentucky Basketball: Fairness "Made In America" For Enes Kanter

Nobody, not the NCAA, not the Kanters, not the Kentucky Wildcats, not John Calipari, not Dick Vitale ...

Not anybody can be happy with the NCAA ruling in the Enes Kanter Case.  Not a soul.  Well, maybe the most insensitive among the Louisville Cardinals or Duke Blue Devils fans, but their partisanship can be forgiven them.

The NCAA Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement decided on Friday to uphold the earlier staff decision that Enes Kanter was permanently ineligible to play college basketball for an NCAA institution.  The decision was based on the apparent reasoning that any money received from a professional team in the sport in question above "actual and necessary expenses" was justification for declaring the player ineligible by reason of non-amateurism.

Many fans, UK and otherwise, have pointed out apparent inconsistencies in this ruling.  Let's list a few of them:

  • The NCAA has allowed athletes who received payments not allowed by the rules from other interests, including agents, apparel companies, third parties, and other unspecified individuals and groups to play amateur athletics with the caveat that they repay these payments and suffer a competition penalty.
  • The NCAA has allowed student-athletes steeped in the tradition of NCAA rules for virtually all of their sports lives to blatantly violate these standards by selling their rings, apparel, and trophies for cash or other considerations to return to amateur athletics after suffering a competition penalty.
  • The NCAA has allowed players to become de-facto professionals by declaring for the NBA draft, then withdrawing late, to return to amateur competition in direct contravention of the letter of their rules.
  • The NCAA has declared that a player who's father solicited illegal benefits from teams in an attempt to sell him to the highest bidder was eligible for competition because of his ignorance of the father's conspiracy, and (clarified only very recently) due to the fact that no deal was ever consummated in the "pay for play" scheme.
  • The NCAA has declared that none of its findings of leniency in any case may be cited as precedent, and are "not binding on the NCAA".  In other words, its decisions only mean something as a precedent when they say it does, if ever.
  • Finally, the NCAA has frequently declared an "intent to professionalize" a major component of its decisions, yet despite the clear lack of one in the Kanter case, chose to discard this frequently-cited precedent dicta.

This is a long list of facts that are well documented, if not well understood.  Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Eric Crawford still bemoans the Muhammed Lasege case, and many blogs and newspapers have taken shots at the Cam Newton and Ohio State rulings. 

The NCAA has declared that it may be lenient when it chooses, or not, without being held accountable to either reason or fairness.  It has declared that it may interpret the rules one way one one time, and another way in a different case without the necessity of even offering a defense, or allowing schools to hold the NCAA to precedential reasoning.

The decision to permanently ban Enes Kanter is based in rule 12.02.4 and 12.2.3.2 of the NCAA bylaws, which say, as amended, from the 2010-11 NCAA Division I Manual:

12.02.4 Professional Athletics Team. A professional team is any organized team that:
(a) Provides any of its players more than actual and necessary expenses for participation on the team, except as
otherwise permitted by NCAA legislation. Actual and necessary expenses are limited to the following, provided
the value of these items is commensurate with the fair market value in the locality of the player(s) and
is not excessive in nature: (Revised: 4/25/02 effective 8/1/02)

(1) Meals directly tied to competition and practice held in preparation for such competition;
(2) Lodging directly tied to competition and practice held in preparation for such competition;
(3) Apparel, equipment and supplies;
(4) Coaching and instruction;
(5) Health/medical insurance;
(6) Transportation (expenses to and from practice competition, cost of transportation from home to training/
practice site at the beginning of the season and from training/practice site to home at the end of
season);
(7) Medical treatment and physical therapy;
(8) Facility usage; (Revised: 4/24/03)
(9) Entry fees; and (Revised: 4/24/03)
(10) Other reasonable expenses; or (Adopted: 4/24/03, Revised: 10/28/04)

(b) Declares itself to be professional (see Bylaw 12.2.3.2.4). (Revised: 8/8/02)

...

12.2.3.2 Competition with Professionals. An individual shall not be eligible for intercollegiate athletics
in a sport if the individual ever competed on a professional team (per Bylaw 12.02.4) in that sport. However,
an individual may compete on a tennis, golf, two-person sand volleyball or two-person synchronized diving
team with persons who are competing for cash or a comparable prize, provided the individual does not receive
payment of any kind for such participation. (Revised: 1/9/96 effective 8/1/96, 1/14/97, 4/25/02 effective 8/1/02)

12.2.3.2.1 Exception—Competition Before Initial Full-Time Collegiate Enrollment—Sports
Other Than Men’s Ice Hockey and Skiing. In sports other than men’s ice hockey and skiing, before initial
full-time collegiate enrollment, an individual may compete on a professional team (per Bylaw 12.02.4),
provided he or she does not receive more than actual and necessary expenses to participate on the team.
(Adopted: 4/29/10 effective 8/1/10; applicable to student-athletes who initially enroll full time in a collegiate
institution on or after 8/1/10)

 

This seems fairly straightforward in theory, at least.  As long as the money the player receives is applied to all the above things in (a) 1-10 and are not "excessive in nature," a term which is at best, very ambiguous and highly subjective, the player is eligible for competition.

The NCAA, however, clarified this quite a bit in the Kanter case.  It basically said that money in excess of these "actual and necessary" expenses paid by a pro team were different in nature than other impermissible benefits.  The rationale seems to be that impermissible benefits from agents, shoe companies, runners, and other smarmy folk are less corrupting to the amateur status than money paid directly by a professional team.  Essentially, the NCAA has said that even lying to it in violation of its ethics rules, a la Renardo Sidney, is more forgivable than taking one dime above expenses from a professional team.

Let's think about that a moment.  The Kanters were forthright about the fact that they received money in excess of the "actual and necessary" expenses allowed by the rules, but they sequestered that money away unspent with the understanding implied by many NCAA prior decisions that if that money was a problem, they could just pay it back and all would be well with a game penalty.  They did not understand, nor could any rational person, the intent of the NCAA to differentiate between money gleaned directly from a professional team and money taken from a mere representative of professional athletics interests.  Apparently, the more direct the connection, the more evil the money.

Which brings us to the ethics of the matter.  The NCAA purports to serve two masters, the interests of the athlete and the interests of their member institutions.  These two interests are very often at loggerheads.  Fairness to an athlete can result in unfairness to member institutions, and vice versa.  Arguably, we see that with the Cam Newton and Ohio State rulings.  But for the fact that Newton was available to Auburn, particularly in the Alabama game before the NCAA cleared him, there is little doubt that they would not be in the BCS championship game.  Similarly, if the Ohio State Five had not been allowed to compete in this year's Sugar Bowl and serve their sentence in the meaningless part of the season next year, there is little doubt that Ohio State could not have won that game.

But in the Lasege and Kanter cases, the NCAA has sided with the institutions over the athlete.  The disturbing trend here is that both these worthies were international players, and both their rulings were precedent-setting, at least for those of us who believe in such things as precedent, which the NCAA clearly abjures.  The fact that neither came out in defense of the athlete ought to give everyone pause.

The NCAA has always made a big deal out of the fact that it could apply rules strictly, but then make exceptions for the purposes of fairness and equity.  This is one of the strong points of the NCAA process, the fact that strict application of the rules can be used as a bludgeon to deal with blatant cheating and unfairness, but those rules could be softened where there was misunderstanding, accidental compliance failures, or youthful indiscretions.

A good example would be Dee Bost, guard from Mississippi State.  Bost failed to withdraw his name timely from the NBA draft last year, which by strict interpretation of the rules makes him a professional and permanently ineligible for NCAA play.  Reporting leaves little doubt that Bost intended to manipulate the system, and the NCAA allowed him to do so.  The Committee on Reinstatement applied a game penalty to Bost and allowed him to return to amateur competition. In this case, the interests of the student-athlete were placed above that of the member institutions.

So it went with Renardo Sidney, despite he and his parent's deliberate and ultimately successful attempt to deceive the NCAA as to the source and amount of their income received on Sidney's behalf, since much of the Sidney's comparatively opulent lifestyle prior to their son's enrollment in Mississippi State remains unexplained.

Ah, but Enes Kanter.  Despite the forthrightness of Kanter and his parents with regard to the money he took and for what reason, the NCAA decided that it could not be lenient with him.  It decided that because the money came from a pro team, honesty, integrity, and a clear intent not to professionalize were simply not enough.  The NCAA decided that it was better to forgive blatant dishonesty and malfeasance than unintentionalal rule-breaking where great care was taken in a failed attempt to adhere to the rules.  The decision from the Kanter case is a clear and unambiguous one -- if you are going to take money, make absolutely sure it cannot be traced to a professional team.  If it can, and you want to play, you should dissemble and hope you don't get caught -- the NCAA won't treat your lying as severely as taking the money.

Make no mistake, the NCAA is acting fully within its rules in declaring Kanter permanently ineligible.  It really isn't even a close call.  But based on a long line of leniency shown to American players, the NCAA's actions in the Lasege and Kanter case appear to be at best biased against non-Americans, and at worst, somewhat jingoistic.  In any case, the Kanter ruling is a middle finger extended to the very European players that most of its member institutions had clearly hoped to coax to American colleges based on recent rule changes intended to help players like Deniz Kilicli avoid long stretches of game penalties.

The reality that the NCAA must live with, though, is that its decision is completely unfair to everybody -- UK, Kanter, his parents, and the NCAA member institutions who clearly intended to soften the amateurism rules for European players.  It is not only unfair based on previous decisions, which it now conveniently regards as non-precedential, but it is unfair based on the common understanding of intent to adhere to the rules. 

The Kanters clearly intended that their son not be a professional, but because they botched the process due to an honest lack of understanding that in a rational world could surely be forgiven foreigners, the NCAA felt no need to show the kind of compassion to the athlete and his family it showed in the Sidney, Selby, Ohio State, and Cam Newton cases despite the much more egregious intent of those worthies, and their far greater experience with the rules.  To the contrary, the NCAA said, in essence, "You can't hold Newton et. al. against us, we can do as we will."

And so they can, to their eternal shame.

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