Ron Holmes, the father of star UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad, had groomed his son for stardom from a very young age. When it came time to navigate the NCAA hurdles that faced both any top basketball recruit as well as Muhammad specifically, Holmes was more than prepared:
For more than two years, he had been guarding a recording of a phone call that [financial planner Ben] Lincoln had made to the NCAA. On the secretly taped call, an eligibility official seemed to approve Lincoln’s funding of trips to North Carolina.
This phone call never made major headlines because the NCAA cleared Muhammad shortly after the release of a letter Holmes had been hanging on to. That letter recounted the now-infamous plane conversation involving the boyfriend of former NCAA enforcement staff member Abigail Grantstein.
So without hearing the call, what exactly did Holmes have? “Eligibility official” is not a title in the NCAA. If a member of the public was to call and ask a question about giving benefits to an athlete, they would likely end up in one of two places: either with a customer service representative at the NCAA Eligibility Center or speaking to a member of the NCAA’s Academic and Membership Affairs (AMA) staff.
If Lincoln talked to someone at the Eligibility Center, the content of the call would be immediately suspect. The customer service reps do not have authority to issue interpretations. To get any sort of good information, the call would need to indicate that the question was passed to, at the very least, a member of the Eligibility Center’s amateurism certification staff.
Even that staff does not generally interpret NCAA rules. To have a smoking gun worth betting an athlete’s eligibility on, the interpretation would need to come from an AMA staff member. Ask enough people working at NCAA institutions and you will find a host complaints and criticism about the quality of interpretations issued when calling the AMA phone lines.
This all assumes that the question was properly asked. The preexisting relationship exception is a highly nuanced and technical rule. It requires meeting a number of requirements and avoiding a number of other red flags. Unless the question was asked properly and there was at least a minimum of follow-up, it could very well not be an answer worth relying on.
It is lucky for Muhammad that his father never had to rely on this supposed trump card. Assuming either of these two tactics had or would have had any effect, the letter was the better play. Here was an example of perceived misconduct by the NCAA, rather than an NCAA interpretation that would be right in the NCAA’s wheelhouse to discredit. In all likelihood, the phone call would have been a shot-in-the-dark last resort rather than an ace up the sleeve.