Duke, Thomas do not owe explanation in jewelry case

“Duke basketball” and “NCAA violation” aren’t often mentioned in the same sentence, if at all.

Under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, there has rarely been even the sniff of impropriety around his program, much less an actual violation. Which is why the news that broke late last year that former forward Lance Thomas, who graduated in 2010, was being sued for the outstanding balance of a jewelry purchase totaling $97,800 was so eyebrow-raising.

Thomas, a key member of Duke’s 2010 national championship team, allegedly made a down payment of $30,000 to Rafaello and Co., whose lawsuit against Thomas for the outstanding balance was made public in September of 2012. Thomas was allegedly due to pay the balance in 15 days, yet the lawsuit wasn’t filed until January 2012, just over two years later. The lawsuit was settled a few weeks after the public learned of the lawsuit, and part of the terms was that neither side could discuss anything about it.

Questions that arose in the interim, of course, were numerous.

How did Thomas get the initial $30,000 down payment? Why would a jewelry company extend a loan that substantial to a college student, one who presumably had no way of paying it back in the immediate future?

Those questions will likely never be answered, though. Thomas isn’t talking, the jeweler isn’t talking and the NCAA investigation launched not long after the lawsuit was revealed ultimately found no wrongdoing. Duke University released a statement yesterday saying as much: “The NCAA has found no evidence of a rules violation in this situation based on the information available, and both the NCAA and Duke consider the matter closed.”

Naturally, some voices in the college basketball world have suggested that somehow this sullies Duke’s clean reputation under Krzyzewski. Even though there’s no evidence a violation occurred, the fact that these questions remain unanswered is a black mark on Duke’s legacy. All we can do is speculate, after all, about where Thomas got the money or why he was extended the line of credit in the first place.

Fine. Let those voices speculate. Better than the alternative.

The NCAA can’t prove anything because no one is going to talk. And no one is going to talk not only because of the confidentiality agreement from the lawsuit settlement, but also because they don’t have to. It’s really that simple. Had the jeweler come right out and accused Thomas of wrongdoing, Thomas (and Duke) might be having to prove his innocence to the NCAA. As it stands, though, he’s not in school anymore and the NCAA has no subpoena power.

Sure, there have been times when players who didn’t talk were still assumed to be guilty in the eyes of the NCAA. (A major difference in those cases is that specific wrongdoing was alleged, even if just by one person, where as in this case there it’s just suspicious.) In the Miami case — which has its own complications because of the NCAA obtaining information improperly — most of the allegations stemmed from the statements of Nevin Shapiro. Just one person.

North Carolina football had a number of NCAA violations revealed in 2010, many resulting in suspensions, some season-long. The program served a postseason ban a year ago as part of its punishment stemming from those cases. Some players admitted that they took extra benefits. But some were deemed guilty of lesser crimes.

Safety Deunta Williams said he tried to be as forthright as possible about a vacation to see a former teammate (he claimed the teammate paid for his hotel and he paid him back in cash). The result? A four-game suspension. Because he couldn’t prove he paid it back. A third of his senior season, gone.

Some have suggested Duke should do the “right thing” by making Thomas talk. Obviously, Duke doesn’t have this power. Some have even suggested Duke take down its banner from the 2010 national title. Again, for who? For what? This sentiment is reminiscent of The Foundation for a Better Life commercial that has run on TV for the last few years now. Two players go for a ball and the referee calls it out of bounds off of one of them. The player — Alex — who’s team got the ball went to his coach in the huddle and said, “I touched the ball before it went out, coach.”

It was the end of a tight game, and his teammates protested: “The ref did not call that!” … “It’s the championship game!” Alex stayed true to his values, insisting he touched it last and that the other team should get the ball. So his coach went to the referee and told him that, and then the other team got the ball.

And his coach told him “Good job.”

This is a lovely idea. It certainly sets a great example for kids. But it’s not realistic in any way, particularly on the college or professional levels where there is so much at stake.

Can you imagine a basketball player, at the end of a tight game, essentially telling the referee that his call was wrong and the other team “deserved” to have the ball, even if the referee missed it? Why should he or she be expected to?