Neither Forgiven nor Forgotten
by Jed Tai
The NCAA is at it again.
Ruling with an iron fist.
Play in a three-on-three charity game? North Carolina’s Will Johnson and Jonathan Holmes did. You’re suspended one game. Rent a car when you’re under 25 years of age? Memphis point guard Antonio Burks did, with the full cooperation of Avis Rent-A-Car. You’re suspended three games. Participate in a non-competitive rec league while you’re sitting out? Syracuse newcomer Billy Edelin did just that his freshman season. You’re suspended twelve games, one for each game you played in.
The cause for punishment? Supposed “extra” benefits. Ridiculous as these transgressions may have seemed, by the book they were deemed worthy of reproach, and punishment was doled out swiftly from Indianapolis (although the suspension for the UNC duo was lifted after an appeal).
These judgements came not long after the incidents in question. But with another recent NCAA ruling, apparently it’s not only what happens now that can be held against you, but anything that happened in the past can be targeted as well. And unlike the other suspensions, where the schools involved could survive in the long run (Jeremy Hunt capably filled in for Burks in Memphis’ opener; Syracuse will simply have to wait longer for Edelin), this is a ruling that could affect a team’s fortunes for the entire 2002-03 season.
It’s the case of the NCAA versus Mississippi State star center Mario Austin. Entering the season, Austin was going to be the cornerstone of a possible Top 10 team; a player who would likely make an impact on the national scene. But since November 11th, instead of being a young man getting prepped for a big year, he’s been in limbo. Because of an NCAA investigation into his high school transcript, Mississippi State had been forced to hold Austin out of competition – two exhibition games – until a ruling could be made. And now it has.
The NCAA has ruled that it erroneously allowed Austin to play as a freshman two years ago. Details have not been released, but apparently the NCAA has found something that they must have overlooked after Austin graduated from high school in 2000. They have not, however, ruled on what Austin’s future status is, and until they do, Mississippi State will continue to hold him out of play. Worst case scenario? Austin is declared ineligible for the season (and his career), which would be a huge blow to any title aspirations – SEC or NCAA – the Bulldogs might have had.
At first glace, one can’t help but scream unfair. Mario Austin, Mississippi State, and the SEC did not knowingly do anything wrong. Two years ago, Austin was admitted to MSU and was ruled eligible to play by the NCAA initial eligibility clearinghouse with his existing academic record. The SEC further reviewed his file to make sure everything was peachy keen. Ever since, he’s done everything academically to remain eligible to compete with relatively zero issues. But now the NCAA has decided it had made a mistake and it’s Austin and Mississippi State who have to answer.
Certainly initial eligibility requirements are nothing to scoff at. It’s important to determine who is a legitimate college student and entrance determinations are best used to correctly predict academic success. But regardless of high school GPAs, core classes, and SAT scores, it would appear that Austin has made that question moot with his university-level performance. But because the NCAA made a self-confessed goof two years ago, it invalidates what Austin has already proven in the college classroom? It’s like prosecuting someone for smoking a joint twenty years ago.
There has to be something else going on. Ever since he left high school, Austin has flirted with declaring for the NBA Draft, and rumors surrounding his involvement with agents and the like have been floating around for quite a while. There’s no doubt this has caused the NCAA to raise an eyebrow – and with good reason. But what would prompt them to start digging into his high school transcript? That’s not related. Nobody is saying at this point.
Regardless, Austin will be sitting on the sidelines until the NCAA can reach a resolution. And until more details surface, it will be because he shouldn’t have been eligible two years ago. Regardless if he has proven himself academically since. A mistake had been made. And someone’s got to pay.
It certainly won’t be the NCAA.