The Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) has come out with a new public statement in light of substantial publicity and outcry over its ruling that Maori Davenport is ineligible.
If you are unaware of the story, Davenport is a senior at Charles Henderson High School in Troy, Alabama. She is committed to play college basketball at Rutgers after this year, and last summer she participated in the USA Basketball U-18 Tournament in Mexico City. After that event, USA Basketball sent her a check for $857 for expenses and for lost wages or loss of time while participating. Such payments are specifically allowed by the NCAA in its amateur eligibility rules, for participating in Team USA events. Most of the players participating had concluded their high school eligibility, but three had not, including Davenport. USA Basketball failed to check on the specific rules and incorrectly sent the check to Davenport, which she cashed.
In mid-November, USA Basketball notified Davenport’s family that they would have to give notice to the AHSAA, and Davenport reimbursed the money. The AHSAA ruled her ineligible for her senior year as a result of the payment, despite the reimbursement, shortly thereafter.
The situation has gained national prominence over the last week. Jay Bilas of ESPN has been a vocal opponent of the ruling, and plenty of other organizations, from USA Basketball to the WNBA to Spalding have spoken out.
In today’s statement, the AHSAA shows no signs of bowing to public pressure. The statement by David Holtsford says:
The stories and comments being circulated throughout the media and social networks are asking that an exception be made to the Amateur Rule because it was not the student’s fault; the fact the money was repaid, and that the student is an exceptional athlete and will miss her senior year. However, if exceptions are made, there would no longer be a need for an Amateur Rule. The Rules are applied equally to ALL athletes. Furthermore, most eligibility violations are the result of adults failing to follow the rules. Here, the student’s mother as a certified AHSAA Coach should know the rules; the School’s Principal should know the rules, the Head Basketball Coach, as not only a Coach but also as a former Central Board member, should know the rules.
Another point not mentioned in the public stories being circulated is that creating an exception to this Rule would have provided an avenue to exploit student-athletes by providing an opportunity for students to receive money and prizes for athletic participation and if discovered, state they didn’t know the rule, thus allowing them to return the items and retain eligibility. This is why AHSAA stresses to the leadership of its member schools how important it is to know the rules and advise their students regarding all rules that affect eligibility. Informing student-athletes of the consequences for violating such rules is the responsibility of the adults supervising them.
Holtsford goes on to claim that Steve Savarese, the executive director of the AHSAA, does not have the authority to change a rule but must apply it as written.
Here’s what Savarese said directly to Jay Bilas:
I asked Savarese whether he had ever encountered a case of similar nature in his 44 years as an educator. He said, “No, never. Not anything similar to this. I have had a few eligibility cases in the past, but nothing at all like this.” I asked about the decision-making process, and Savarese replied that whenever he is notified of a violation, he works with the school to apply punishment. I asked exactly who makes the decision on an eligibility case. He replied, “I do.” I asked if it was his sole discretion. He said, “Yes. I decide all such cases. I am the absolute authority in these cases.” Savarese was pleasant in tone when discussing this matter. After again referring to his 44 years as an educator, I asked him what lesson is to be learned from this case, and at whom the lesson is aimed.
His tone changed. Savarese said, “The lesson to be learned here is for the adults that have the responsibility to inform the student-athlete of the rules. It is the responsibility of other parties, school officials, USA Basketball who only had to make a phone call, and her mom who is an assistant coach. She should know better. We work with outside agencies all the time. We work with Nike. All USA Basketball had to do was make a phone call.”
Savarese continued, and his tone became more stern. “My charge is to uphold the rules. What if I said ‘no’? What if I let her play? If I make an exception to one rule, it opens up a Pandora’s box on all of our rules. How could I enforce any rule? If I made an exception here, I would be arbitrary and capricious.”
So here is what seems to be fairly established. Team USA incorrectly issued a payment to Davenport, something that they issue to most participating players and it is not an issue if they have used their high school eligibility. Team USA then notified the AHSAA and the Davenports of the error and Davenport reimburse the money.
The AHSAA is standing on strict legality. The rules say a player that accepts such payment is ineligible. They are also trying to point out that Davenport’s mom is a middle school coach, and should know the rules. (Though not sure if you are being strict constructionist about the rule, those “facts” would matter.)
And so the question is should you craft an exception based on the equities. I know this may come as a surprise, but courts and ruling bodies often craft exceptions and make decisions that apply unique facts. Heck, the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, with far more stakes than a high school eligibility ruling, made sure to note that “[o]ur consideration is limited to the present circumstances,” hoping to prevent its precedential value to dissimilar facts.
This isn’t an athlete accepting payment to transfer schools within Alabama and create real concern for the various high schools. When you get a check from Team USA after representing the country, that’s different than an AAU coach giving you cash. Yes, Team USA screwed up, and yes, maybe the adults should have clarified things better despite that confusion. But that confusion is understandable and not like other eligibility questions.
Those supporting this decision talk about the mistakes of the adults who should know or do better. You know what adult leadership would look like? It would say, yes, those things should not have happened, but this is a unique case. We want our athletes representing our country. The money has been reimbursed and the intent was not malicious. She is reinstated, and in doing so, understand that this ruling only applies to athletes who participate on national teams for our country. And this offseason, we will review those rules to clarify and make it so our high school athletes so honored can accept a stipend from Team USA, just as the NCAA has crafted a similar exception, because it is not like a payment that is made to influence a decision on where to play in the state.
That would be the adult thing to do.