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College Basketball: The Lance Thomas Affair

Lance Thomas without $97,000 worth of custom jewelry that he apparently owned at this point.
Lance Thomas without $97,000 worth of custom jewelry that he apparently owned at this point.

Comes now the story of Lance Thomas, late of the Duke Blue Devils -- as in the 2010 NCAA Tournament championship team -- to prove that NCAA jurisdiction ends at the North Carolina border, at least when it comes to basketball. It seems that Lance placed a rather tidy sum for a college student, some $30,000, as a down payment for what is described as "custom jewelry" from a New York jewelry store. According to the Associated Press (Hat tip: BCinVA):

A starter on Duke's 2010 national championship team purchased nearly $100,000 in custom jewelry that season from a New York firm that caters to professional athletes and is now suing him for failing to pay the balance of what he owes.

Lance Thomas purchased five pieces of diamond jewelry at a cost of $97,800 on Dec. 21, 2009, in the middle of his senior season, according the lawsuit. Documents included with the suit indicate he made a $30,000 down payment and received $67,800 in credit from the firm, the balance that remains unpaid.

Okay, Duke is a school for rich kids, right? So what's the big deal? Well, Thomas' mother worked as a "head manager" of a Ford Motor Company plant in New Jersey. Now, before you scoff, jobs with that description can sometimes pay six figures, depending on what she was the manager of, and at what level. So it is not out of the question that he could have had that amount of money at his disposal from his family.

Gary Parrish of CBS is curious not so much as to the source of the funds, but as to why the jewelry store would extend almost $70,000 in credit to a college student:

Let's forget the $30,000 down payment for a second.

I've already established that's ... weird.

The other problem here is that the NCAA will want to know -- or at least the NCAA should want to know -- how Thomas received nearly $70,000 in credit from a jewelry firm when he was merely a student-athlete because NCAA rules prohibit student-athletes from receiving benefits not available to all students. In other words, could a normal Duke senior with no job get a New York firm to provide a nearly $70,000 line of credit? If not, Thomas received an improper benefit.

That's a slam dunk, right? Imagine a kid getting all that credit -- no way that can be legit, right? Right? Well...

Not necessarily.

It is not that unusual for businesses to extend lines of credit for customers that fork over a large sum of money as a down payment on a high-margin product, which "custom jewelry likely is, particularly if there is a cosigner, guarantor, or some other reason for them to plausibly believe that his credit was good. Heck, it is entirely possible that the store simply made a bad business decision for whatever reason. It happens, and it happens a lot more often than most people realize.

So Parrish's conclusion that this is an impermissible benefit isn't necessarily valid. It certainly could be -- I would absolutely never create a line of credit like that for a young man still in college. But more importantly, Thomas didn't have a reputation upon which any reasonable person could base such a loan in terms of future NBA earnings. A quick look at Thomas' numbers at Duke reveals he was little more than a limited role player during his entire career. Thomas was a starter, but he averaged about 5 points and 5 rebounds for the Blue Devils -- hardly worthy of a big NBA gamble.

I advise caution before running off and claiming, "See, Duke cheats!." Keep in mind that in any reasonable set of circumstances, an accuser would have to prove that the jewelry store in question did something unusual or unexplainable in this case, and they did it because they thought Thomas was going to have a successful NBA career that would justify the risk. That sounds easy to prove, but we must always be aware of Hanlon's Razor, which reminds us:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I know, I know, dear Kentucky fan. You just know that this was an illegal benefit offered by the jewelry store. You just know that someday, Duke is going to get it's due. It is possible that is so. But it is also possible that the proprietors of the jewelry store are just stupid, bad business people who drew a vapid conclusion from a set of facts that did not justify it.

Here's the bottom line: Forget Parrish. The NCAA are going to look for ways to excuse Thomas, after announcing that they are looking into it and Duke is fully cooperating. We know this because they did the same thing in the Myron Piggie scandal involving Corey Maggette. It is likely they will do in this case what they did then and claim a lack of evidence, an expired statute of limitations, or some other justification concluding that it was merely a bad business decision and not an improper benefit. Yes, it's possible some booster or agent paid Thomas a large amount of money. But if so, I wouldn't bet on it being revealed.

So don't buy the Parrish line. He is just tempting you in order to get you in an uproar, which is how he and his ilk at CBS get hits -- get UK fans excited, and BOOM! -- the hit meter ticks like a Geiger counter in the middle of Three Mile Island. What you should do is what I do nowadays when it comes to the NCAA: Remember that up is down, wrong is right, and darkness is daylight. When it looks like the NCAA has no jurisdiction, they do. When it looks like they do, they don't.

You don't need to see his identification. These aren't the droids you're looking for. He can go about his business. Move along.