The NCAA crime ring

It is one of those stereotypes for a reason — this is basketball country.

Even before I knew what a dunk or zone defense was, I have been cheering. One of my favorite stories came before I could dress myself in my team’s colors — usually red. It was the 1986 National Championship game between the Louisville Cardinals and the Duke Blue Devils, and my parents dressed me in a size 3 referee’s “zebra” costume, which was even accessorized with a whistle. Sitting on the second level and caught up in the emotion of the moment, I let that whistle fly toward the floor. I am sure the refs had made a horrendous call and I felt required to express to them how I felt.

There is a postscript to the whistle-tossing incident. Running around the concourse with my dad chasing me, we ran into legendary coach Jim Valvano of North Carolina State, who remarked to my dad, “What kind of parent would dress his kid like that?” My dad asked, “What do you mean, Coach?” Valvano replied, “He will never have any friends.”

Even before I required a ticket to the game, I listened to the “Dream Game”: Six months before my birth in 1983, my parents witnessed the greatest five minutes in Louisville basketball history, dominating in overtime against a Kentucky team that had refused to play Louisville for years, and then going to the Final Four.

But through all the thrills and cheers, nerves and tears, I feel that all of my fellow “fan”atics and I have been cheated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) — and it is happening again.

Over the years, it has been hard to imagine that any school’s fan base has eluded the shadowy rule of the NCAA. For Louisville basketball fans, this year feels like deja vu — or a sick rerun from the ’90s, when every year, our top recruit was found ineligible for one reason or another. Of course, being the most successful program of the last decade and having another championship contender this year might allow us to quickly forget, but once again, one of Louisville’s best recruits is missing time — with no apparent timeline for resolution.

Shaqquan Aaron, a 6-foot-7, four-star recruit ranked 33rd on ESPN’s Top 100 list for 2014, has not been cleared to play by the NCAA clearinghouse. While the rumors regarding the issue holding up his eligibility run rampant, one thing is clear: The NCAA remains a hypocritical, shameless, gutless organization that does not care about “student athletes.” While I am sure the individuals that comprise the organization are all, or mostly, good people, collectively their organization has earned each of those badges for their treatment of young, aspiring athletes and university athletic programs.

Since I can remember, the NCAA has been an organization actively searching for ways to keep young men out of college instead of helping to find ways to get them in — and keep them in — school. For this, I say we have all been cheated as fans and as a society.

My favorite example was the decision to make ineligible two Louisville basketball recruits from Nigeria: Benjamin Eze and Muhammad Lasege. Eze, whose violation was playing one game for a professional team in Russia, never made it to Freedom Hall before transferring to a junior college, where he would play before turning professional.

Meanwhile, Lasege’s great offense was “an intent to professionalize” and accepting a few thousand dollars in travel expenses. The long story is worth reading; it was captured beautifully by the Courier-Journal’s Eric Crawford on his blog in a post, “Remembering Lasege,” in September 2010. But in short, Lasege’s dream was to attend college in the U.S., and Russian mobsters and basketball were simply means to that end.

Lasege, after being permanently banned from playing collegiate basketball, continued his education and was an honors student at U of L with a 3.8 grade-point average in economics. He continued to play some professional basketball overseas to pay for graduate school, culminating in an MBA from Penn’s Wharton School of Business, and he is now an executive with ExxonMobil.

I understand and acknowledge that being the organizing body for over 300 Division I schools, more than 6,000 teams and over 170,000 athletes is an impossible assignment to run perfectly, and never will everyone be happy with a decision. However, in a world of gray, they operate in black and white, fabricating rules and punishments that keep kids out of school. The NCAA should spend the time, energy and hundreds of millions of dollars in resources trying to get these kids into school, not keep them out.

For all of the criticism of the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell, much of it warranted, I at least commend him for putting his face to his decision. The NCAA is still just the terrible wizard behind the curtain.

And where is Shaqquan Aaron again?