Lance Thomas lawsuit could test integrity of NCAA

On Dec. 21, 2009, Lance Thomas, then a senior starting forward at Duke, walked into Rafaello & Co., a boutique jeweler on 47th Street in midtown Manhattan that caters to celebrities and professional athletes.

The 21-year-old Thomas bought a black diamond necklace, a diamond-encrusted watch, a diamond cross, diamond earrings, and a black diamond pendant in the shape of Jesus' head. The grand total: $97,800. He paid $30,000. The bill of sale called for the rest within 15 days.

The payment never came, and when the Associated Press on Friday reported the details of his spending spree in a lawsuit seeking payment from Thomas, it sounded the opening bell to what could be a landmark case that affects all of college athletics.

Not only does the NCAA have a potential infractions case on its hands that could touch Mike Krzyzewski's legendary program and cause the vacating of Duke's 2010 NCAA title, it could serve as proof of whether the NCAA is truly willing to equally enforce its rules no matter the accused.

Or whether its current system is even still viable.

[Also: Nick Saban berates the media for all of their praise on the Crimson Tide]

At this point, nothing is certain. The NCAA and Duke say they are aware of the lawsuit. There is no guarantee there will even be an investigation.

Still, this is a lot of smoke.

The first eye-raising detail, of course, is how a college senior had $30,000 to spend on jewelry. That's an exceptional amount of money for even well-off Americans. While Thomas' scholarship might have freed up a college fund – or the North Jersey native could've earned the money – it's still a lot.

You can speculate, since this is college basketball, about agents or runners or boosters, but there is no allegation of any of that. It's premature to assume anything other than Lance Thomas or his family earned the money within NCAA rules.

In this case, it might not matter. The more germane issue is that the jeweler effectively provided Thomas with a $67,800 loan – the remaining balance on the purchase.

NCAA rules are clear that a student-athlete can't receive any "extra benefit" based on his celebrity as a player or against future professional earnings.

In this case, did Rafaello & Co. allow a 21-year-old to borrow $67,800 because that 21-year-old was a starter on the eventual national champions and thus considered a potential NBA player who would not only be likely to pay the balance but become a return customer? Is it standard practice to let young people make that substantial of a purchase with just 30 percent down?

If not, Duke could be in trouble.

That could mean Lance Thomas was ineligible by receiving that "extra benefit." If he was ineligible, then every game Duke played from Dec. 21 on could be vacated. That would include the 2010 Final Four, which Duke won, delivering Coach K his fourth national title. And thus Duke would vacate the championship. (It would not be awarded to runner-up Butler, either. There would just be no champion.)

The punishment stage is far down the line. In general, however, the NCAA is adamant that it doesn't want its student-athletes being paid – either in money or goods – by anyone. The NCAA's reasoning for this particular rule is fairly simple: If players could trade on future earnings or celebrity, they'd get deals on everything. A car dealer would gladly offer a future lottery pick the most expensive ride on his lot for $1 down with payments beginning on draft day.

The NCAA fears schools would use such deals as a recruiting advantage. A booster who runs a car dealership could offer what is essentially a free car to every player on the team and never ask for the money later. A clothier could offer the same. Or an apartment manager. Or a hotel. Or whatever. Some schools would enjoy a competitive advantage.

It also protects players from getting into bad deals with people who aren't forgiving – such as owing $67,800 to a jeweler when, like Lance Thomas, you spend most of your first two seasons in the NBA's Developmental League (he finished the season with the New Orleans Hornets, starting 10 of 42 games).

Understand, this isn't to get you to agree with the rule. I oppose the NCAA's entire system. It needs players to be "amateurs" so it can continue to avoid paying taxes. Bureaucrats get fat on the billions of dollars in television contracts, players must sneak around to buy anything more than a sandwich.

No, this is more an explanation for why Duke, which as a NCAA member must follow the rules, should be concerned.

It's unlikely Krzyzewski knew about this purchase. Smart money says Thomas hid the jewelry from any member of the Duke staff. Right now Coach K is probably furious and mortified. There is very little benefit to having a starting forward blanketing himself in jewelry and winding up embroiled in a lawsuit. The diamonds didn't draw Thomas to Duke. They didn't maintain his academic eligibility. They didn't make him stronger or faster.

[Also: Thrash-for-cash not such a bad thing for a financially strapped Savannah State]

Knowledge matters not when it comes to sanctions, though. At least, that's what the NCAA said when it vacated the University of Memphis' entire 2007-08 season, including its runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament. That was over a sketchy standardized test score from guard Derrick Rose. The NCAA ruled that no one at Memphis knew about the test nor should they have known about the test. Memphis was still stripped of its Final Four. The term the NCAA used was "strict liability."

Rose was ineligible and nothing else mattered.

So was Thomas ineligible? We'll see. The best defense Duke appears to have might be the purchase order that specifies Thomas owed the balance within 15 days. If so, the jeweler obviously wasn't waiting on him to earn NBA money because he would've still been in college at that time. Perhaps a $30,000 lump sum is enough of a good-faith gesture to trust the final two-thirds would soon arrive.

Or maybe there was a verbal agreement. An understanding that this was a Duke player. Boastful talk about the NBA. It's important to ask: If the rest of the money was required in 15 days, why did it take more than two years to file suit?

That's where the details of the case will matter, and right now, Duke might have an aggrieved party, Rafaello & Co., ready to talk to the NCAA.

"Speaking hypothetically," the jeweler's attorney, Mike Bowers, told the AP, "if he came in on a bicycle with tattered jeans, I doubt seriously he would have been sold jewelry, but I'm not drawing conclusions. The terms here are clear."

So are the stakes.

Not just for Duke, but for the NCAA, which, for decades, has been criticized for supposedly enforcing its rules differently against different programs. Memphis was coached by John Calipari; a far easier target than Krzyzewski. Even if additional sanctions are highly unlikely because of the Duke coaches' ignorance, the vacating of the title would hurt enough.

Cal and the Tigers wailed about "strict liability," but few cared when the Final Four was stripped. It would be a different public-relations situation for Coach K.

The NCAA can't ignore this because it's Duke, but if it's Duke that loses its national title over a jewelry-store loan, of all things, how can the NCAA continue to ignore that its entire busted rulebook?

So here comes an obscure lawsuit from a near-six-figure Manhattan shopping spree, right out of nowhere, right out of the past.

Here comes a case that could shake college sports to its foundation, banners dropping and questions rising, strict liability and situational enforcement as much in the crosshairs as Duke itself.

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