College Basketball Nation: NCAA Eligibility Center

So, you know how Wednesday I said the Shabazz Muhammad eligibility case had officially become a mess? I think I spoke too soon.

This story from the L.A. Times is what officially makes it a mess:
A conversation overheard on an Aug. 7 commuter flight from Chicago to Memphis, Tenn., has prompted attorneys representing UCLA basketball player Shabazz Muhammad to call for the NCAA to drop its investigation and declare him eligible.

The conversation came to light in an email from an attorney who said she was seated behind a man who was speaking loudly about the work of his girlfriend, an "attorney with the NCAA."

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesAttorneys representing Shabazz Muhammad are calling for the NCAA to declare the UCLA freshman eligible.
The girlfriend, whom he identified as "Abigail," was investigating Muhammad. The man made it clear that the NCAA would find Muhammad ineligible and not allow him to play this season, the email said. Abigail Grantstein, an assistant director of enforcement, is the NCAA's lead investigator on the Muhammad case.

Yeah. It's like that.

If your first reaction is "Wow, that's like four levels of hearsay," I'm right there with you. But Times reporter Baxter Holmes confirmed the lawyer's story and identity in a phone call Wednesday, and the details only get worse. The timing of the alleged flight incident came "just eight days after NCAA investigators say they first requested documents from Muhammad's family." If the timeline checks out, that would imply -- as Muhammad's representatives are loudly telling anyone who'll listen -- that members of NCAA enforcement were already telling their significant others Muhammad wouldn't play college basketball before they had all the facts.

What exactly did said boyfriend say? The anonymous lawyer paraphrased to Holmes:
In a telephone interview, the attorney expanded on what she heard: "He was insistent that, 'My girlfriend is investigating him and he's dirty' and … 'I can guarantee you that he's not going to play.'

"He talked specifically about taking money. That's what he kept saying: 'Abby knows it' and 'They're dirty and they were taking money and she's going to get them.'"

Theoretically, NCAA enforcement staff shouldn't be telling their significant others anything. Failing that, said significant others should definitely not be mouthing off about eligibility cases, trying to impress strangers on a flight. (You couldn't build a doghouse big enough for this dude.) Assuming any of that happened -- and a lawyer says it did -- well, yeah, that is a really bad look for the NCAA.

Where do they go from here? The NCAA is hearing UCLA's official appeal Friday. If the appeal is successful, he'll be reinstated right away. If not, UCLA can request reinstatement, at which point Muhammad would probably miss games and repay whatever benefits he allegedly received.

There is some reason to believe the NCAA, chastised and embarrassed, will do as Muhammad's lawyers say. There is also reason to believe the NCAA, feeling cornered by a sudden public battle, will ever more forcefully stand its ground. As CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish wrote Thursday: "I have no idea if the NCAA was really 'out to get' Shabazz like his lawyer suggested. But I guarantee you the NCAA is out to get him now."

As the immortal Marty Huggins said: It's a mess.
Every day this week, your friendly neighborhood ESPN.com college basketball staff has been publishing stories about the current state of academics in college sports. We've discussed the NCAA's new initial eligibility requirements and their wide-ranging effects on college coaches, prospective players and secondary education personnel; delved into the overwhelmed and often flabbergasted inner-workings of the NCAA Eligibility Center; and checked in with the latest arguments on all sides of the Academic Progress Rate debate. It's been a fast, furious and (hopefully) informative week.

In case you missed any of it, or in case you share my completist tendencies, I compiled the links to each of this week's academics stories.

O'Neil: Two sides to eligibility divide: Dana introduces the general NCAA eligibility dynamic, and focuses on the divide in understanding between the NCAA staffers who implement the organization's rules and the coaches and players subject to them.

O'Neil: NCAA eligibility's judge and jury: "If you want to know how the eligibility sausage gets made," Dana writes, "these are the folks to talk to." The folks in question are the NCAA staffers assigned to the High School Review arm of the Eligibility Center, who revealed the organization's accepted standards for core courses, related the difficulty in approving hundreds of thousands of high school courses, and even let Dana see one of the more ridiculous high school quiz questions you'll ever see.

Pickeral: NCAA mum on UNC scandal: This spring, the NCAA imposed major penalties on North Carolina's football program as penalty for improper benefits and an academic scandal following a tutor. Since then, an internal school probe has revealed "54 AFAM classes were either 'aberrant' or 'irregularly' taught from summer 2007 to summer 2011 ... including unauthorized grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time." As university officials insist the impropriety is an institutional issue, Robbi checks in on the still-simmering scandal.

O'Neil: Get a taste of this NCAA baloney: Dana immediately counters that idea, arguing that if there is any situation that should prompt the NCAA to take punitive measures for a school's academic progress, it is this one -- despite the NCAA's apparent unwillingness to do so.

Pickeral: Counselors feel the pressure: The NCAA's steadily increased focus on academic progress has put pressure on coaches and players, but it has also increased the importance of academic support staffs at universities. Robbi discovers that major schools' support staffs have steadily added personnel, and the stakes have never been higher.

Brennan: High schools take notice: Beginning with the incoming class of 2016, high school freshmen who could one day play college sports will be held to new academic standards. Chief among them is a requirement that prospective athletes complete 10 of their 16 core courses before their senior year -- meaning players will need to mind their eligibility status from the time they enter high school as freshmen. That process begins this fall. I asked secondary educators, coaches and guidance counselors what they made of the new rule, and wondered whether the message would be received -- particularly at financially strapped public schools -- in time.

King: Well-intentioned APR has its critics: Criticisms of the NCAA's APR rule are nothing new, but as the rule has evolved, so has the reaction. Jason checks in with a variety of college coaches to get their thoughts on the rule, most of which are positive -- with caveats, of course.

Medcalf: Poor schools feeling brunt of APR: Historically black college and universities and other resource-strapped small schools have different missions from many of their Division I counterparts, and can't afford the deep pool of academic staffers available to high-major programs. Myron discusses why such schools are disproportionately affected by the NCAA's academic standards, and what the organization is doing to lessen the divide.

Bilas: Case for getting rid of the APR: Mr. Bilas has long argued that the NCAA's academics standards are more about optics than actual academic progress, and anyway, shouldn't individual institutions be free to decide who is qualified to enroll and who isn't? You may not disagree -- a cynical imbalance in competition seems like an inevitable result of this approach -- but as always, Jay's arguments are drenched in persuasive logic.

Commentary: How to game NCAA's APR: Want to know how athletic programs game the Academic Progress Rate? Gerald S. Gurney and Richard M. Southall, professors at Oklahoma and North Carolina, respectively, lay out the various tricks academic advisors and coaches use to stay on the right side of the APR ledger, many of which defeat the APR's stated purpose. Essential reading.

O'Neil: It's still about the kids ... right?: "I have spent the better part of the past month trying to get my arms around the commingling and occasionally conflicting world of academics and athletics in college sports. Here's what I know for sure: It's complicated." That's the first sentence of Dana's series-closing column on the state of NCAA academics, wherein Dana balances the good intentions of the NCAA with the very real possibility that it could leave behind kids for whom a shot at college basketball could be their only way to a better life.

There will be much to watch in the NCAA academics space in the years to come, as reforms move forward and their effects come into clearer view. Stay tuned. For now, happy reading.

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