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Posted: Wednesday March 01, 2000 11:18 AM

Pros or Pawns?

The NCAA is out of line punishing players who got a helping hand in high school

By Alexander Wolff

Sports IllustratedJean Valjean at least stole a loaf of bread. Four college basketball players recently suspended or targeted by the NCAA seem to be guilty of little more than being misérables. The NCAA holds that Michigan freshman Jamal Crawford, Cincinnati freshman DerMarr Johnson and Oklahoma State freshman Andre Williams all compromised their amateur status in high school, the latter two because others helped pay their private-school tuition. St. John's sophomore Erick Barkley is under investigation for receiving similar tuition assistance.

It's a silly point to press. It would be one thing if Ernie Lorch -- the Manhattan lawyer who helped arrange for New York's Riverside Church to pay between $2,500 and $4,000 of Barkley's $23,500 tuition at Maine Central Institute (MCI) in Pittsfield -- funneled players exclusively to St. John's, or if Tom Grant, the Kansas City businessman who paid Williams's bill at MCI, was an Oklahoma State booster. Neither is the case. For four decades Lorch and Riverside, where he's a volunteer basketball coach, have helped countless kids go to many colleges. Grant is a Kansas booster with no incentive to do a Big 12 rival any favor, and he has helped a number of kids, not just athletes, with their private-school tuition. While the Johnson case does have an odor to it -- an AAU coach with a drug conviction paid $7,500 of his tuition at MCI -- no evidence ties any of these payments to some future consideration.

Crawford's case is the most complex but also the most poignant. In 1995, while living with his father in South Central L.A., he saw his best friend shot and killed by a gang member at a bus stop. Crawford, then 15, fled to Seattle, where his mother was living. When a friend introduced her to telecommunications executive Barry Henthorn, she asked for his help, and Henthorn obliged, providing Crawford with cash, clothing, meals, transportation and tutorial help while he attended Rainier Beach High, a public school. Without knowing Henthorn's motives, the NCAA has debased what he helped accomplish: delivering a young man from the urban killing fields so he could safely finish high school and make his way to college.

On Feb. 4 Crawford received a six-game suspension for benefiting materially from his relationship with Henthorn and was told to pay $11,300 to charity. (How he's supposed to come up with the cash is anyone's guess.) The NCAA then banned him for another eight games for having the gall to attempt to enter the 1999 NBA draft.

Crawford won't play for Michigan again this season. Yet the NCAA will continue to bless its schools' selling the jerseys of star players, and its conferences' tattooing the court with corporate logos, while NCAA gumshoes do little to ferret out the dirty recruiting and the standardized-test fraud that plague the game.

Just curious: If a ballplayer who accepts money for his secondary-school education is a professional, what do you call a kid on an athletic scholarship at an NCAA school?

Issue date: February 28, 2000

For more Scorecard see this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday, March 1. Click here to subscribe to SI.

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