Tangled McLemore Saga Unlikely To End Well

Late yesterday, USA Today posted an excellent investigative story from Eric Prisbell in which Darius Cobb, the former AAU coach of Kansas star Ben McLemore, admitted to accepting cash and gifts from Rodney Blackstock, who runs a mentoring service for basketball players but also appears to be a freelance runner for agents.

The article is an excellent look at how individuals in every widening concentric circles around athletes try and attach themselves to gain influence for personal gain. Beyond that, Prisbell’s piece raises the questions of possible NCAA violations and what the penalty for Kansas might be, since McLemore has declared for the draft and is beyond the NCAA’s reach.

The starting point is Bylaw, which says that an athlete is ineligible if he or she or friends or relatives receives benefits from an agent. Under Bylaw 12.02.1, the NCAA’s new and expansive definition of an agent (a.k.a. the Cam Newton rule), Blackstock almost certain can be classified as one. In fact, Cobb might fall in the category as well, which includes anyone who:

Seeks to obtain any type of financial gain or benefit from securing a prospective student-athlete’s enrollment at an educational institution or from a student-athlete’s potential earnings as a professional athlete.

If the NCAA goes this route, then not only might the alleged payments and gifts to Cobb and a cousin of McLemore’s render the player ineligible, but the payments from Cobb to McLemore might be as well, provided they came after Cobb is tagged as an agent.

It seems open and shut. All the NCAA has to do is continue its longstanding trend in men’s basketball to rope in third parties. But for anyone expecting or hoping for Kansas to get smacked down, there are two major barriers.

First, the NCAA has to investigate a number of people who are under zero obligation to talk to them. Blackstock, Cobb, even McLemore are beyond the reach of the NCAA now that McLemore is headed to the NBA. Unless Cobb decides to talk to the NCAA and provide documentation of these payments and gifts, the investigation could quickly run into a dead end.

Second, despite some differences, the McLemore allegations shares some common elements with Cam Newton’s. In both cases, a individual with influence over a student-athlete is alleged to have received or requested money in exchange for using that influence, without clear evidence that the athlete knew what was going on. And under the Cam Newton rule, in both cases we might treat these individuals as agents because of the new definition.

But that still does not answer the question of how to handle an athlete’s eligibility when the NCAA cannot prove the athlete even knew what was going on, much less consented to it or received anything themselves. Holding Cam Newton out of the SEC championship game when the NCAA could not prove he knew about or got any benefits would not have gone over well. Neither would stripping Kansas of a Big 12 title and Sweet Sixteen appearance under similar circumstances.

But if the NCAA does overcome those obstacles, KU will have additional questions to answer. Blackstock’s appearance on McLemore’s pass list for multiple games may lead to the NCAA to conclude that Kansas should have known he was in some way connected to McLemore. Kansas may then have to detail what monitoring they did of the individuals that basketball players added to the pass list, and why the school did not know about Blackstock’s connections to agents. Failing to answer those questions would, if the case gets that far, raise Kansas’ institutional culpability quite a bit.

Absent a major break in the case, there is unlikely to be a satisfactory outcome here. Perhaps the NCAA will be unable to substantiate the allegations or will not go the additional step further that it refused to take in the Newton case. Or the NCAA will punish Kansas after the fact for a violation that neither the school nor the athlete ruled ineligible knew was occurring. Either way, this case is likely to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.