Oregon's Arsalan Kazemi alleged racial discrimination while at Rice
Oregon's Arsalan Kazemi has been a key player in the Ducks' run to the Sweet 16, but while at Rice from 2009-12 he alleged that Owls athletic director Rick Greenspan repeatedly made insulting and discriminating remarks to him, two fellow Middle Eastern players and an assistant coach, and that led to his request for a hardship waiver from the NCAA to be eligible to play this season.
According to a document obtained by SI.com, Kazemi, the first Iranian-born player in NCAA Division I men's college basketball, alleged in his hardship waiver that Greenspan made derogatory comments referencing Al-Qaeda and the Axis of Evil when talking about Kazemi and two of his teammates.
The NCAA only grants hardship waivers under special circumstances, but in this case it gave waivers to Kazemi and his teammate, center Omar Oraby, an Egyptian who transferred to USC in September.
The 6-foot-7, 226-pound Kazemi has been instrumental for Oregon (28-8) this season, averaging 9.3 points and a team-best 9.9 rebounds per game. The 12th-seeded Ducks face No. 1 seed Louisville in a Midwest regional semifinal in Indianapolis on Friday night.
On Thursday, Kazemi, who is Muslim, declined to answer questions about the allegations he made against Greenspan in his hardship waiver request. "I won't talk about that," Kazemi said.
Greenspan, who was hired as Rice's athletic director in March 2010, denied all of Kazemi's allegations. "I'm glad he's having success in the postseason, but we at the university categorically deny any allegations of discriminatory treatment that might be claimed during his time at Rice," said Greenspan, who was previously the athletic director at Indiana and Army.
In his hardship waiver, Kazemi claimed that Greenspan routinely made insulting remarks based on ethnicity and religion to him, two other players (Oraby and forward Ahmad Ibrahim) and a former assistant coach (Marco Morcos) during his three years at Rice. Oraby averaged 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game at USC this past season, while Ibrahim bypassed his three remaining years of eligibility to turn professional and play in his native Lebanon.
Morcos, an Egyptian native whose contract was not renewed after last season and recruited all three players, has filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging discriminatory remarks and a hostile work environment at Rice, according his lawyer, Aaron Pool. Morcos, who declined to provide any more details to SI.com, was an assistant for two seasons at Rice under coach Ben Braun. He had also previously served as the Owls' director of basketball operations for two years.
When asked about his EEOC complaint, Morcos said there were certain things he could not talk about for legal reasons.
Oraby did not return a message left on their cellphone and Braun and Ibrahim could not be reached for comment.
In Kazemi's waiver request, he claimed that Greenspan told Marcos to "recruit more terrorists" on multiple occasions. He also alleged that when talking in Arabic to another player that Greenspan asked if they were having an "Al-Qaeda meeting."
When Morcos wore a traditional Middle Eastern gown as part of a team function for Halloween, Kazemi alleged in the waiver request that Greenspan told the assistant, "All you need is a backpack and you are ready to bomb the school." On multiple road trips, Kazemi claimed that Greenspan directed airport security to thoroughly search the bags of him, Oraby and Ibrahim because of their Middle Eastern heritage.
Kazemi also accused Greenspan of telling him and other players in January 2012, "We only need one more guy to complete the Axis of Evil."
Another time, Kazemi alleged he was talking in a foreign language to another player and Morcos when Greenspan walked by and told them, "Stop speaking in this language because you could be plotting against us."
Kazemi maintained in his hardship waiver that he and his guardian in the United States approached Braun on several occasions and requested that Braun speak with Greenspan about his comments. Kazemi also claimed that Rice's coaching staff did not grant him special accommodations for matters related to his religion such as prayer, facial hair and diet.
When asked about the allegations, a Rice spokesperson issued a statement that read, in part: "As a matter of policy, Rice University avoids commenting on personnel matters or matters before the NCAA. However, allegations involving two former men's basketball players require a brief response.
"In September 2012, two student-athletes received permission from Rice to transfer to the University of Southern California and the University of Oregon. Both schools have sought a waiver of the NCAA's one-year residency rule so that the students can compete in the upcoming basketball season. Unfortunately, USC and Oregon have included in those waiver applications meritless allegations of discrimination, including some previously asserted by a former assistant basketball coach whose contract was not renewed last spring.
"Rice head basketball Coach Ben Braun and Athletics Director Rick Greenspan strongly deny those allegations. Rice University has a strong institutional commitment to tolerance and diversity, and both Braun and Greenspan share those values and provide services and programs that accommodate the needs of a diverse student-athlete population."
Anthony Ibrahim, who helped bring Kazemi to the U.S., told SI.com on Thursday that he knew about the allegations in Kazemi's waiver request and believes them to be true. "There's no reason to lie," he said.
Rice did not support the hardship waiver for Kazemi or Oraby. This season the Owls struggled to a 5-26 record, including a 1-15 finish in Conference USA. With Kazemi in 2011-12, Rice went 17-15 and made the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament quarterfinals.
An NCAA spokesperson said it reviews all waivers on a case-by-case basis and couldn't comment on Kazemi's case specifically citing privacy concerns.