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Free Charlie Villanueva

November 21, 2003 Columns No Comments

Free Charlie!

by Michael Ermitage

When I first heard of Charlie Villanueva, I didn’t like him. It was during the whole Roy Williams to UNC, Bill Self to Kansas, and Tom Crean to nowhere dominoes this past off-season. I think I was perusing a message board (most likely illiniboard – the Cadillac of message boards) when I read that Charlie wasn’t sure if he was going to honor his verbal commitment to Illinois if Self wasn’t the head coach. Being a Big Ten fan and an Illinois native, I was understandably peeved. After all the coaching drama ended, Villanueva ended up in Storrs, Connecticut playing for the University of Connecticut. And now, lo and behold, the vilified Villanueva has become the charming protagonist to the NCAA’s foil. There is no bigger villain in college athletics than the NCAA. Villanueva’s summer wavering is kid’s play compared to the strong-arm antics of the NCAA. It’s like if Saddam Hussein kidnapped Rush Limbaugh – you’re totally rooting for Limbaugh, even if you generally don’t.

In this case, the NCAA is investigating whether or not Villanueva’s family paid for his entire “NBA exploration” when Charlie worked out for teams in May and June. Apparently a friend of Villanueva’s, whom Charlie says he’s known for eight years, paid the expenses. The NCAA is looking into the details of that relationship to see if Villanueva’s money was ill gotten. Now, of course, I want the NCAA to do its due diligence in investigating these kinds of improprieties. But it’s the timing that’s all wrong. Why now? Shouldn’t this have been determined long ago, say in May or June when this all occurred? Now you have a young man who has made the choice to attend college and play college basketball only to be denied. He has done all the work necessary by qualifying academically to play, enrolling in his classes, attending practice, etc. By forcing Villanueva to sit, the NCAA deprives him of playing, deprives his teammates of his contribution, and deprives college basketball fans from seeing a great talent on the court. What if this investigation yields only evidence that Villanueva legitimately paid for those workout trips? Will the NCAA say I’m sorry about taking two (or three, or five, or however long this will take) games from Villanueva’s collegiate career that he can never relive? And what about the message this is sending to others? It looks as though if you are choosing between the NBA and college that you’ll have a fight on your hands if college is your destination.

I know that calling out an organization like the NCAA for misdeeds is like calling Satan a “bad guy.” This is not news. But to the NCAA’s credit, its overbearing rule probably has served some benefit to college basketball. However, their effect is in the preventative realm – stomping out all types of cheating long before it happens through fear of punishment, like a Singapore courtroom. In this case, however, it is hurting the future of the game. Certainly the NCAA could see this happening long before it did – so there should be a system in place to deal with athletes that are in Villanueva’s position. For any high school athlete that has verballed to an institution and works out for an NBA team, they should be required to provide some simple information about how the workouts were financed. The NCAA then should investigate in a prompt fashion. There couldn’t be that many kids in this situation per year.

Charlie Villanueva is another sick example of the NCAA publicly displaying its power. I may have disliked Charlie when I first heard of him, but he has no bigger fan than me now. Free Charlie!


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