Sam Mellinger

The simple fix for Cheick Diallo’s case, and why the NCAA is not the villain

KU freshman Cheick Diallo is waiting for NCAA clearance to play this season.
KU freshman Cheick Diallo is waiting for NCAA clearance to play this season.

The case appears to be absurd. Let’s say that right here at the top. It involves bureaucratic backup, requests for sixth-grade coursework from Mali, and a talented young basketball player who speaks multiple languages and earns honor roll caliber grades but is beginning what is effectively a suspension because a bumbling and over-its-skis organization isn’t convinced he’s college material.

In what form of reality does that make sense?

So, yes. The case surrounding Cheick Diallo’s eligibility to play basketball at Kansas is absurd, just like the case of Tacko Fall’s eligibility to play at Central Florida was absurd, and just like many cases with many athletes to play many sports at many schools are absurd.

Which is the point, really.

Because this is a mess. All of it. And it is exactly the kind of mess that the universities themselves deserve.

They earned their way into this. That’s the message from two college administrators — neither of whom work at KU, by the way — and a view shared by the attorney who has taken up Diallo’s fight.

“I do agree with that,” said Don Jackson, an Alabama-based lawyer who has worked eligibility cases for years. “The reality is, the membership afforded the NCAA the authority to do this. They afforded them the authority to create these initial eligibility standards.”

In other words, even the man leading the fight against the NCAA doesn’t believe the NCAA is the villain here. The villains are the schools who have allowed, supported, and funded an organization that long ago lost much of its credibility to continue serving a function for which it is fundamentally unqualified.

Diallo’s case has already drawn national attention, which figures to only pick up as he sits out Kansas’ season opener against Northern Colorado on Friday night. There is no sign of a ruling anytime soon. These cases routinely drag on, bogged down by paperwork and arcane rules and selective judgments, for weeks, or months. Sometimes longer.

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One of the many problems with the system is that the athlete has very little control over the pace of the investigation, and is the one left penalized when cases move slowly. Diallo is performing well academically, has cooperated with the investigation, and has reportedly made it clear he’s willing to speak with the NCAA at any time about his coursework or relationship with his guardian.

Still, starting on Friday night, he is left to serve what is effectively a suspension — even without a ruling, and without the finding of any violation.

This would be easily fixed if student-athletes — whom the NCAA supposedly exists to protect and serve, according to the rhetoric — had due-process protection. It is such a simple solution and would keep teenage athletes from being bullied by a system that assumes they are guilty until proven innocent. Give student-athletes due-process protection, and the innocent would not be forced to miss competition. In other words, the athlete would be presumed eligible until proven otherwise.

Look, there are legitimate reasons for the academic background of athletes to receive extra scrutiny. Most schools already lower their admissions standards for athletes, and without any oversight, the spirit of competition and lure of big money would further erode the motivation to learn and the importance of academics.

So having a third party provide oversight is an entirely reasonable notion. It’s just that the oversight is currently being done by an unqualified organization without due process to protect innocent athletes against a bureaucracy’s mistakes, selective judgments, and ability to punish athletes who’ve done nothing wrong.

These cases involve students who have been accepted by universities — which are much better equipped to determine college readiness than the NCAA — and who are otherwise performing well enough academically to be eligible. Giving them the benefit of the doubt is, literally, the least the NCAA should do.

The way the system is currently structured, the NCAA merely has to raise questions about an athlete’s background and schools are strong-armed into treating them as if they’ve been proven guilty.

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This is a situation that has frustrated every major college athletic director who has had his or her job for more than 10 minutes. This happens at every level, and in every sport.

Diallo’s case is receiving more attention than most because he is a high-profile athlete in a high-profile sport at a high-profile program. This is exactly the kind of situation that can often bring change that benefits the larger group. Maybe that can come from the Diallo case, but if so, this is only the very beginning, and without due process protection he is highly unlikely to benefit.

That would stink for him, but would make things much better for the next one.

“The fix may ultimately wind up having to come through federal court,” Jackson said. “Because I don’t see any real intellectual courage out there to fix this internally.”

The same factors that created the problem make the problem unlikely to be solved. Schools are fighting a mess that they made themselves. When athletes are unfairly forced to miss games, the natural reaction has always been to blame the NCAA.

But it’s the member schools who built the mud pit they are trying to get out of.

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