- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Tuesday morning, the Raleigh News & Observer reported an important development in the Lance Thomas jewelry fiasco: Thomas and Rafaello & Co., the jeweler who sued the former Duke player for failing to repay an alleged $67,800 credit in 2010 reached a settlement in the case.
That's good news for Rafaello & Co.. They get their money back. It's good news for Thomas. He doesn't have a lawsuit to deal with. But what does it mean for the Duke Blue Devils, for whom the lawsuit appeared to be a potentially disastrous NCAA concern?
Today, Andy Katz follows up on the N & O's story with analysis from Stu Brown, a lawyer at Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller, which has handled high-profile NCAA cases in the past. At issue, as you already know, is whether the loan Thomas received was given thanks to his status as a high-profile amateur athlete. That's against NCAA rules, and blatantly so. But thus far the jeweler has refused to speak with the NCAA, citing its ongoing legal action. What about now?
According to Brown, that depends. The NCAA's chances of investigating Thomas's eligibility retroactively -- an investigation which could have theoretically led all the way to Duke's vacating its 2010 national title -- hinge almost entirely on the terms of the lawsuit's settlement agreement:
"If there are benign explanations regarding the underlying transaction and the settlement agreement, the settlement agreement could allow one or both parties to talk to the NCAA, but not to comment publicly," he said. "That would be a little unusual but not unprecedented."
Brown said if the settlement agreement prevents any comment from a third party (which would include Duke and the NCAA), then "it is likely that this case will eventually fade away due to an absence of relevant information/evidence about what really happened.
"Without information from Thomas or the store, people may smell smoke, but it will be difficult to find a fire."
If the settlement agreement includes language that allows either party to speak to the NCAA, the Committee on Infractions will have something to go on. If it doesn't -- or, if it expressly prohibits it -- then the only party the NCAA can compel to speak on the matter will be Duke, which almost certainly knew the least about the situation to begin with.
Where does that leave us?
It leaves us with an obviously fishy situation, which pretty much everyone involved -- from the NCAA to Duke haters to even the most ardent Duke fans -- can admit doesn't look good. A Duke player walks in to a high-profile New York jeweler with clients like Carmelo Anthony, puts $30,000 down, and gets another $70,000 in credit? Where did that $30,000 come from? Why did the jeweler agree to grant Thomas another huge chunk of credit on top of it? Could it have been for any other reason besides the fact that Thomas was a Duke starter that someone -- the jeweler or a third party or whomever -- assumed was heading to the NBA?
The whole thing stinks; it has NCAA violation written all over it. But unless the jeweler or Thomas is willing to talk to NCAA enforcement, the organization may be unable to pin down exactly what happened, why, and with whom, and therefore unable to take further action.
Unless the jeweler or Thomas breaks their respective silences, chances are the NCAA will get nowhere. That would be a shame, because if you're not allowed to sell your own game-worn jersey (word to A.J. Green), you shouldn't be able to buy $100,000 worth of jewelry, mostly on credit, simply because you're a Duke basketball player. That appears to be -- I'll repeat that: appears to be -- what happened here. But the NCAA needs more than smoke.