The punishment levied by the NCAA last week against UCLA sophomore forward JaRon Rush (right) for allegedly accepting improper benefits from Jerome Stanley, a Los Angeles-based agent, and Myron Piggie, Rush's former AAU coach in Kansas City, Mo., was shocking in its severity. Rush was suspended for 44 games (all of the 1999-2000 season, except the three games he'd played before his suspension on Dec. 10, plus the first 17 games of next season). The penalty, which could be reduced on appeal, is remarkably inconsistent with ones levied in similar circumstances in the past. It also reveals the extent to which the NCAA has failed to establish clear guidelines for players in determining what they can accept and from whom.
In 1996, for example, longtime sneaker-company impresario Sonny Vaccaro, who was then working for Adidas, gave round-trip airline tickets worth $572 apiece to St. John's players Felipe Lopez and Zendon Hamilton so they could attend a basketball clinic in Las Vegas. When this illegal benefit was discovered, Lopez and Hamilton were told to reimburse Vaccaro, and they didn't miss any games. Connecticut guard Ricky Moore was grounded for five games during the 1996-97 season after it was found that he had received an airline ticket (value: $471) from an agent. Three years ago Shawn Walters, a football player at USC, took $7,000 in cash from an agent and was forced to sit out 12 games—essentially one season. Yet the NCAA penalized Rush 29 games for accepting $6,125 in cash and benefits, allegedly from Piggie, and 15 games for allegedly taking $200 from Stanley, who denies that any money changed hands.
Clearly, Rush is no innocent. The money and benefits he took from Piggie pale in comparison with the largesse he accepted from Kansas City businessman Tom Grant, who funded the AAU program in which Rush played for Piggie. Grant lavished upon Rush gifts that included tuition to a private school, a vacation to the Cayman Islands and the use of a car, but two years ago the NCAA ruled that those benefits didn't constitute a violation because Grant and Rush had had a relationship since Rush was 11 years old. If there's a distinction to be made between gifts Rush was allowed to take from Piggie (because Piggie was funded by Grant) and the $6,125 in cash and gifts he wasn't allowed to take from Piggie, the NCAA appears to be the only entity able to make it.
Further underscoring the need for guidelines is the fact that Rush's brother, Kareem, a freshman at Missouri, was suspended for nine games for accepting $1,800 in benefits, again allegedly from Piggie. Another former player on that AAU team, Oklahoma State forward Andre Williams, was suspended for five games because Grant helped pay his tuition for a year at a prep school.
Given that the summer basketball scene is notorious for the money being passed out to coaches and players by competing shoe companies, last week's ruling raises the question of how many other college players would have their eligibility jeopardized if the NCAA had more information. The facts in JaRon's case came to light only because federal authorities in Kansas City are investigating Piggie on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.
The NCAA says that the inconsistencies in the penalties stem from the fact that it's wading into uncharted waters. "We're applying our principles to sets of facts that we've not had before," says NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro. "There's not a whole lot of precedent for the scenarios we've received in these cases."
To the contrary, these are age-old scenarios with slightly new twists. It's time the NCAA spelled out what benefits are allowed, what ones aren't and what the penalties will be for transgressors.