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Could a conversation overheard on a plane lead the NCAA to clear Shabazz Muhammad?

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Shabazz Muhammad (Getty Images)

If UCLA gets Shabazz Muhammad back in the near future, the Bruins may have an NCAA investigator's chatty boyfriend to thank.

Lawyers representing Muhammad told the Los Angeles Times Wednesday they're calling for the NCAA to drop its investigation and reinstate the prized freshman as a result of a conversation overheard on an Aug. 7 commuter flight.

An attorney seated behind a man who described himself as the boyfriend of the NCAA's lead investigator in the Muhammad case said she overheard him say the NCAA would find Muhammad ineligible and not allow him to play this season. When reached by the Times on Wednesday, the attorney confirmed the story, adding she felt compelled to speak out because of "the cavalier discussion of this young man's future being tossed about for everyone to hear."

[Related: Top UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad ruled ineligible]

The revelation of the conversation is intriguing, but there are probably too many questions here for this to be a game changer.

First of all, this is a flimsy story based on secondhand and thirdhand information. Even if the conversation did take place the way the attorney claimed, it's entirely possible NCAA investigators simply suspected Muhammad would be ineligible based on the evidence they had already gathered and the boyfriend overstated things.

Secondly, while it would be unfair if the NCAA reached a conclusion in August since it hadn't received pertinent documents from the Muhammad family yet, investigators had already been working on the case for a while. They had enough evidence to reportedly warn schools recruiting Muhammad as early as February that his eligibility was in doubt.

At the same time, if conspiracy theorists choose to latch on to this story as evidence the NCAA is acting unfairly to Muhammad, the NCAA has nobody but itself to blame. That's because the NCAA did exactly what it is being accused of here with its misguided decision to suspend two Indiana freshman nine games last week based on a technicality.

In that case, the NCAA claimed it was suspending Peter Jurkin and Hanner Mosquera Perea as a result of $185 in payments their AAU coach made to Indiana's Varsity Club between 1986 and 1992. Since the payment made the coach a booster in the eyes of the NCAA, it opted to penalize Jurkin and Perea for the gifts they received from the coach — gifts that would have been permissible otherwise.

[Also: John Calipari calls out Duke for flopping, then backs down]

When backlash against the NCAA came from all corners of the basketball community, an NCAA staffer cited an ESPN.com investigation questioning the coach's relationship with Indiana and whether he was funneling players to the Hoosiers. The problem was the NCAA failed to provide any evidence corroborating that claim, so it appeared as though it had instead decided to penalize the parties involved beforehand and found a loophole justifying the punishment.

That the NCAA would mishandle that case so badly makes it understandable if some choose not to give the organization the benefit of the doubt with Muhammad. A conversation overheard on a plane is flimsy evidence at best, but it's also believable given the NCAA's recent history of deciding on a punishment first and then seeking out evidence to justify it.

What will also be interesting to see is what impact Muhammad's lawyer going public with this information will have. It could increase public pressure on the NCAA to reinstate Muhammad, it could strengthen the organization's resolve to keep him out of action or it could have no impact at all.

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