Purdue Coach Gene Keady and I were in agreement. It was the opener of the regular season for the Boilermakers last Friday night in West Lafayette, Ind., and we both wanted to see Long Island University's Charles Jones play. "Yes, I'd like him to be out there," said Keady, standing at courtside before the start of the game. "Our guys need their butts whipped. They're a little cocky."
Keady wanted a tough game. I simply wanted to see Jones play because the slender, 6'3" senior guard is as silky and mesmerizing as a fine scarf in the breeze. But Jones, who led the NCAA in scoring last year, with 30.1 points per game, had not even made the trip from Brooklyn to West Lafayette with his teammates.
The reason? He had been suspended for the first two games of the season for violating an NCAA rule. And what rule was that? Well, let's go right to the horse's mouth to get this one clarified: "It's rule 30.15-e-3," said Carrie Doyle, director of college enforcement for the NCAA." All Division I players must limit their competition to one team in one league." That is the section for summer rules."
Jones played in two leagues in New York City last summer, a violation that had to be dealt with sternly by the NCAA. I know he did this because I was there. While writing a piece on New York City playground basketball in August, I watched Jones play in an outdoor game at Rucker Park in Harlem one night and in an indoor game in Manhattan on another night. I also watched him watch games at Tillary Park in Brooklyn and at West 4th Street in Greenwich Village. Jones is guilty of being a city kid who loves hoops. I even bought him a snack one afternoon—jelly doughnut, iced tea: value $1.69, with tax, if the NCAA is counting—so that I could take an hour of his time to talk about his love of the game. The only way anybody had found out about Jones's two-league violation was through my story, which ran in the Aug. 18 issue of this very magazine.
Though it may not seem like that big a deal to be held out of a pair of games, consider that Jones, who comes from a rough section of Brooklyn, has stayed in school for four years (even sitting out a year of competition after transferring from Rutgers) largely because of basketball. Along the way he has worked steadily toward his degree in media arts, but it's hoops that has sustained him, perhaps kept him from an ugly fate. As Jones has said, more than a dozen of his old street friends have been killed.
For a guy like Jones, missing two games in this, his final season, is a tough blow, especially because one of those games was against Purdue, the kind of big-time team Jones rarely gets to prove himself against. But you do the crime, you do the time.
Sure, college coaches can make as much money as they want and do virtually anything with their free time except start militias or open casinos. But players have more rules governing their behavior than prisoners in lockdown. They can't, of course, make money, over and above the cost of a scholarship, from their athletic skills. They can't work at the local sub shop for pocket change during the school year. They might get some privilege ordinary students don't enjoy, and that has always been taboo to the NCAA.
But unlike ordinary students, athletes have rules to follow all summer too. This is where Jones was negligent. Maybe he knew that it was wrong to play in two summer leagues. Maybe he didn't. But how could he have known why it was wrong?
I asked Carrie Doyle that question. "You are asking us to give the intent of the rule, and we are not prepared to do that," she replied, sending me on to another division of the NCAA for such arcana. No representative of the appropriate division was in at that time, and I gave up my search. The reason for the rule would be the same as it is for all the rules that govern the athletes: to prevent any player from making money or enjoying some privilege.
Last summer I watched Charles Jones sweat and toil and enjoy the game he loves. While doing so he stayed out of trouble, out of harm's way. He received no money for his summer play. But what Jones did was wrong because the NCAA says so. Because the member institutions—all the universities that like their big-time basketball and its steady revenue stream—say it is wrong.