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$97,000 jewelry purchase by ex-Duke player raises eyebrows

Updated: September 11, 2012 12:08PM

If the NCAA intends to investigate whether or not Lance Thomas received any extra benefits that allowed him to purchase nearly $100,000 in jewelry, the organization better start soon.

Duke must receive a notice of allegations from the NCAA with the charges and what bylaws the enforcement staff feels were broken before the organization’s four-year statute of limitations expires. There are exceptions, including cases involving current student-athletes, a lack of institutional control or a pattern of violations that predates the statute of limitations, but it does not appear that any of those will apply, according to NCAA compliance expert John Infante.

“It doesn’t look like any of those are present, at least based on the facts right now,” said Infante, a former assistant director of compliance at Colorado State who now writes a blog on compliance issues. “So the NCAA would need to do this within the coming year or so.”

According to the lawsuit filed by Manhattan jeweler Rafaello & Co. against Thomas, the former Duke player made a $30,000 down payment on five pieces of diamond jewelry worth $97,300 on Dec. 19, 2009. That gives the NCAA until Dec. 19, 2013, to notify Duke of any potential violations.

In addition to the truncated timeline, the NCAA faces other hurdles in gathering information, Infante said. Since Thomas is no longer under the NCAA’s purview, he is not required to talk to the organization and also cannot be forced to talk. And since the NCAA does not have subpoena power, Rafaello & Co. or any other involved party cannot be made to talk either.

When asked, Rafaello & Co. declined to speak with the NCAA since the matter is the subject of ongoing litigation, said Mike Bowers, the jewelers’ lawyer.

“If everybody keeps their mouth shut and everybody refuses to talk to the NCAA, and by everybody I mean Thomas and the jeweler and whoever might have provided him this $30,000 if it did come from someone else, then there’s not much the NCAA can do if they don’t get information,” Infante said.

Thomas, then in the middle of his senior year, signed a purchase agreement stating that he would pay the remaining $67,300 balance on the jewelry in 15 days. He did not have a co-signer on the purchase agreement, Bowers said.

“It’s one of those things that would give somebody pause when you’re talking about a $30,000 down payment,” said David Ridpath, the former director of compliance at Marshall and current Ohio University professor who has testified before Congress on compliance issues. “It makes you wonder, one, where he got the money and then, two, being extended that type of credit as a college student when you can’t receive any benefits or services based upon your potential utility as a professional athlete. So, certainly, there is an issue that has to be looked at. There might be a plausible explanation for it, but it just seems a little unlikely to me. It does seem, at least on the surface, like an extra benefit violation.”

Duke associate athletic director for media relations, Jon Jackson, declined to comment. He has previously said the university will not comment beyond its initial statement that the school is aware of the lawsuit and looking into the matter.

NCAA bylaw 16.01.3 states that a benefit must be available to any of the institution’s students, their relatives, and friends determined on a basis unrelated to athletic ability for it to be permissible. Extra benefits that are impermissible come in a variety of sizes and some could be as small as a free ride for an athlete on a rainy day from a driver who wouldn’t offer one to a student they did not recognize.

The lawsuit against Thomas potentially involves a much larger benefit.

“This isn’t just going and getting an IOU at Wendy’s or something because the manager is a basketball fan and says, ‘Hey, I’ll just give you a free meal and you can pay me whenever,’” Ridpath said. “But something to the level of six figures and getting that type of credit extended gives me pause to think it has to be based on something else.”

Both Ridpath and Infante agreed that there is not yet enough information to determine if Duke will face sanctions. In the interim, questions remain.

“You have two pretty significant questions about Thomas’s eligibility,” Infante said. “It’s as standard a penalty as there is in the NCAA. If a student-athlete is ineligible and plays in a game, then the results have to be vacated, which would include any win he played in certainly after the purchase, and maybe before depending on any other violations that might be uncovered. That obviously includes the tournament run up to and including the Final Four and National Title game.”

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