The initial reaction in Westwood, of course, is to view the return of JaRon Rush in terms of its impact on a UCLA basketball team making its last-gasp run at an NCAA tournament bid.
It’s so much bigger than that. The Rush case has been measured on a grander scale from the very beginning.
That the entire saga played out on one of college basketball’s most visible stages, at a school that is synonymous with the sport, was hardly incidental. It was the whole point.
The NCAA is trying to extend its reach to the world of summer leagues and agents, a realm that’s out of its control. What better way for the NCAA to send its message than by taking away almost half the college career of a prominent player on a prominent team?
“JaRon’s case was being held to a very high standard by the NCAA,” UCLA Athletic Director Pete Dalis said. “They believed this sort of activity would be prevalent in AAU basketball and they foresaw other similar cases coming up in the future.”
As a result, Rush’s sophomore year became a virtual wash. UCLA held him out while the NCAA conducted an investigation into benefits Rush received from an AAU coach and a sports agent. On Feb. 1 the NCAA suspended Rush for the final 12 games of this season and the first 17 games of the 2000-2001 season. UCLA appealed and Monday the NCAA Subcommittee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement reduced the suspension to nine games, of which Rush already has served eight. He’ll miss Thursday’s game at California and return for Saturday’s game against top-ranked Stanford.
The NCAA doesn’t release commentary with its decisions. We’ll just have to guess: maybe some sense is creeping into that massive bureaucracy.
Maybe it’s coming to the realization that it can’t continue using individual players as scratch paper while it tries to work through complex problems that reach the organization’s fundamental values.
Perhaps the NCAA senses it has bitten off too much, that it doesn’t want to get into the position of having to crack down every time a summer league coach pulls the team van through the drive-thru at McDonald’s and treats players to hamburgers, fries and other “extra benefits.”
Because Rush broke the rules in place, he deserved to be punished. He just didn’t deserve to miss a season and a half of his college career, which was the net result of the original suspension. If he fulfills his order to repay the money he allegedly received, a charity of UCLA’s designation will be $6,525 richer. No harm in that.
What’s the real issue here? A person received a monetary benefit for his skills and talents, for doing something as legitimate as playing basketball. If given a choice between a kid driving a new car because an agent hooked him up or driving a car because he’s dealing crack, I’m thinking the agent route isn’t looking so bad.
Kids are bombarded with commercials, teased with material goods, and the NCAA wants to take away their chance to play college sports because they want a part of that?
“I think the real problem is America is basically an entrepreneurial society,” Dalis said. “We take that 4-5 year period [of college athletics] and ask them to be . . . pristine, which, from my perspective is difficult to attain.”
A music major on scholarship can get a paying gig for playing guitar at a nightclub without suffering any consequences, but scholarship athletes can’t get extra cash for their talents.
“It’s not consistent with the way the rest of the institution works,” Dalis said.
Auburn star Chris Porter’s college career hangs in the balance because he allegedly took money from an agent, supposedly so Porter could keep his mother from being evicted from her home. This makes him a bad guy? No, it just sheds light on bad rules.
Auburn can only hope the turn of events in the Rush case bodes well for Porter’s situation.
For UCLA, it hopes Rush’s return isn’t too late to keep the tournament from slipping away.
“In a year like this, when we lost six out of seven, it’s a huge lift,” Coach Steve Lavin said. “We still have a chance to do something special.”
The acknowledged low point came in the Bruins’ two lackluster games at Arizona State and Arizona. Since then, they swept home games against the Oregon schools, received the news on Rush, and have to like their chances of making the tournament if they can win three of the remaining four games.
Now the team has its most dynamic player set to return and might even be able to start enough of a roll to actually win a couple of games in the tournament.
“It’s pretty good,” Lavin concluded, smiling more than he has in quite some time.
It isn’t all good when it comes to the NCAA. But this is a start.
J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com