#FreeDiallo: NCAA running amok in eligibility cases
The argument for why Kansas stud freshman Cheick Diallo ought to be deemed eligible by the NCAA — and ought to be deemed eligible now, as college basketball takes its first turn in the national sports spotlight with Diallo’s No. 4 Kansas facing No. 13 Michigan State as part of a prime-time Tuesday night doubleheader — is both complicated and painfully, painfully simple.
The simple part is this: This young man, a tall, talented teenager from Mali who is considered a likely lottery pick in next year’s NBA Draft, ought to be able to play a full season of college basketball. That is because of his basketball talent, of course — he’s a high-energy shot blocker and rebounder I think is the only missing piece for a Kansas team that could win it all this season — but it is also because of his academic acumen. He’s a multi-lingual African kid who came to the United States in his teens to play basketball and who a source said has already proven himself academically competent in a university setting.
That’s the simple part. Make this kid eligible, and make him eligible now. For the NCAA, which claims to be first and foremost in the corner of the student-athlete, it’s the only correct path. The Twitter hashtag #FreeDiallo is right, both in its stark simplicity and in the implication that the NCAA is holding this kid’s career hostage.
But the more complicated aspect is when you look at this singular case and think about what it means for student-athletes down the road, what it says about the NCAA’s guilty-until-proven-innocent view of initial eligibility and how the initial eligibility process may run afoul of the constitutional rights of student-athletes and their families.
I told you: more complicated than it seems.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so this week I spent nearly an hour on the phone with the attorney Diallo’s guardian hired to fight his still-unresolved eligibility issues. The Alabama-based attorney, Don Jackson, has made a career out of battling the NCAA on similar issues. He told me about the NCAA eligibility center requesting Diallo’s academic records dating back to when he was in sixth grade in Mali. He told me about the NCAA deeming Diallo’s legal guardian an “agent” — despite the man's having legal guardianship established in Mali, despite the fact that Diallo’s guardian runs a Boys & Girls Club-type program for Malian teens and despite the fact the NCAA has never spoken to Diallo’s guardian.
Jackson told me about how this sort of stuff happens all … the … time — and with a disproportionate effect on African-American and international student-athletes.
“The fundamental issue here is the absence of due process,” Jackson said. “You’re guilty until you adequately establish your innocence, and if you can’t establish your innocence, your eligibility will be delayed or ultimately denied altogether. If they can’t produce paperwork for that amount of course work, the eligibility center assumes you didn’t do it.”
This is an issue that affects one high-profile student-athlete now. But mark my words: If Diallo is not declared eligible, it will impact many more down the road.
Jackson doesn’t just question how the NCAA has treated his one client or the NCAA’s process in granting initial eligibility to a college athlete. He questions the very jurisdiction of the association over initial eligibility matters.
His thinking goes like this: The NCAA eligibility center is tasked with evaluating the academic rigor of thousands of secondary schools around the country and the world. Yet despite this enormous and perhaps impossible task, the NCAA does not have the staff to visit these schools in person. All of its value judgments about a student-athlete’s high school education are made from afar, by sifting through reams of paperwork.
It’s a strict enforcement process that was birthed from real issues during the past decade or so surrounding diploma mill-type sham high school educations. It’s part of an intrusive bureaucratic overreach — Jackson speaks of the NCAA requesting the bank and cellphone records of a student-athletes’ families, their car titles and insurance policies — that was borne out of real concerns over amateurism and academic rigor for student-athletes. But in enforcing standards — perhaps in over-enforcing them — the bureaucracy has lost its way.
Jackson makes a compelling argument that universities, not the NCAA, ought to be in charge of initial eligibility: If a student-athlete gets into college and can’t hack it, Jackson said, that’s when the NCAA should be able to come in to enforce academic requirements. But Jackson said the NCAA is making a value judgment about the intelligence and college readiness of student-athletes before they even start college classes.
“That’s a decision a college should make, not the NCAA,” Jackson said. “It’s a decision that should fall back on the university.”
Of course, giving the NCAA the proper secondary-school paperwork is beside the point in Diallo’s case, Jackson said, because he’s already proven himself academically proficient in his short time at Kansas. The process, however — the absurd amount of paperwork frequently requested by the NCAA, the un-American principle that the burden of proof falls on the accused, the hyper-concern over elite student-athletes associating with agents — is broken.
The process hurts Diallo.
And it will hurt so many more student-athletes in the future.
“There are too many of these stories floating around where kids are being targeted and denied initial eligibility,” Jackson told me. “With this case and others, it’s almost like having a defendant from a criminal case, and you’ve already got a guilty verdict before the trial starts.”
“This year it’s Kansas,” Jackson said. “Next year it can be 25 other schools.”
So here’s my plea to the NCAA: Let Cheick Diallo play at Kansas, and do it now.
After that, it’s time to fix the broken process around initial eligibility so the No. 1 goal in each different circumstance is to protect the individual student-athlete.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.