Talk to anyone affiliated with club basketball on the West Coast, and almost to a man they'll insist that Renardo Sidney and his parents broke numerous NCAA rules by accepting compensation for his talents.
That's why I can't feel too sorry for the Mississippi State freshman even if the NCAA's punishment was based more on perceived wrongdoing than anything it actually proved.
Apparently unable to show that Sidney's family had accepted free housing as suggested in a Los Angeles Times investigation last year, the NCAA instead cited other less substantial improper benefits as impetus for its decision. It ruled Friday that Sidney will remain ineligible for the rest of this season and nine games next season and must repay $11,800 in benefits, the basketball equivalent of convicting a suspected murderer for petty theft and then putting him in prison for 25-to-life.
"This decision is a transparent attempt to justify a yearlong investigation that started out focusing on million dollar homes," Sidney's attorney, Don Jackson, said in a statement. "When the L.A. Times’ version of the "facts" wound up not to be true, the Eligibility Center created their own."
All legal posturing aside, what surely compelled the NCAA to come down hard on Sidney was the criticism it previously received for ignoring allegations of impropriety and rubber-stamping the eligibility of Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo. The NCAA risked losing further credibility if it didn't dole out a severe punishment to Sidney, so it decided to make an example of him.
"Our members have made it crystal clear that student-athletes who receive impermissible benefits, either directly or indirectly, and who lie to the NCAA must be held accountable," said Kevin Lennon, vice president for academic and membership affairs. "This case is about more than a single student-athlete. One of our core responsibilities is to ensure a level playing field for all student-athletes and their teams. No team or individual should have an unfair advantage."
Allegations of impropriety have followed Sidney since he and his family left Jackson, Miss. and came to Los Angeles in 2006, a move partially funded by then-Reebok executive Sonnie Vaccaro. A Washington Post story published that same summer described the consulting job Sidney's father had accepted from Reebok in which the only responsibilities were making sure his son played at the shoe company's tournaments.
"That's it," Sidney's father told the Post. "Make sure he gets to (ABCD Camp) and Las Vegas" for Reebok's Big Time tournament.
Suspicion only increased from there because of the bizarre way that Sidney's recruitment unfolded. Here was an elite recruit in the hoops hotbed of Los Angeles, yet UCLA abruptly stopped recruiting him during his senior year and USC later rescinded its scholarship offer after he'd already committed, leaving him to sign with his third -- and perhaps only choice -- Mississippi State.
The circumstances led the Los Angeles Times to investigate Sidney and his family. Its report revealed that the Sidneys rented a home for $4,000 to $5,000 a month, yet the family initially refused to offer an explanation even though that seemed to be well beyond their means.
Instead the Sidneys hired their high-priced attorney, who insists he's provided the NCAA with documentation showing that the family received financial support from a set of grandparents and that the father's relationship with Reebok broke no rules. Jackson also has done everything possible to discredit the NCAA's investigation, from crying racism to alleging that the organization violated Sidney's rights by dragging its feet so long.
The most tragic part of this story is the immature, but polite and seemingly good-hearted college freshman caught in the middle of it. At least that was my impression of Sidney in the two or three conversations I had with him two years ago.
Sidney said Friday he'll return to Mississippi State next season rather than entering the NBA draft, a wise decision considering he wouldn't have played in a year and his conditioning reportedly remains an issue. I hope he gets himself in shape, rises above the mistakes made by adults around him and fulfills some of the lofty expectations put on him when he was younger.