Commentary

Will lawsuit set off a Duke firestorm?

Originally Published: September 8, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The jeweler simply wanted his money.

When lawyers for Rafaello & Co. filed a lawsuit against Lance Thomas on behalf of their clients, they did it merely because the store owners wanted the unpaid balance of $67,800 for a lifetime's worth of bling purchased by Thomas in 2009.

[+] EnlargeLance Thomas
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLance Thomas celebrated a national title at Duke in 2010. Now he's embroiled in controversy.

Chances are they had no idea what that simple lawsuit could do -- namely ignite a frenzy in college basketball.

There is nothing quite like potential NCAA infractions to set people atwitter and send them to Twitter. Roll in the name Duke and you have a veritable tsunami of reaction. You can almost see people greedily rubbing their palms together in certain locales across the country.

But let's be clear up front: Nothing here is decided. The adage of "Where there's smoke, there's usually fire" doesn't always hold true when it comes to NCAA justice. Thomas hasn't been charged with an NCAA infraction, nor has Duke. We are miles from any of that happening, if it happens at all.

But let's also be clear up front about this: There is plenty in this lawsuit that the NCAA needs to -- and will -- investigate.

According to the lawsuit, obtained by The Associated Press, Thomas put down $30,000 in cash for his purchase of a black diamond necklace, diamond-encrusted watch, diamond cross and diamond pendant in the shape of Jesus' head. He was expected to pay the remainder -- the unpaid $67,800 in question -- in 15 days.

The first and most obvious question for NCAA investigators: Where did a college senior, the son of a single mother who is a manager at a Ford plant in New Jersey, according to Duke's website, come up with that sort of cash to drop on something as frivolous as jewelry?

The second and more complicated question: Did Rafaello & Co., a New York-based jeweler with a website that touts its client list of rappers and pro athletes, extend an opportunity to Thomas to pay less than a third of the purchase in advance because of who he is? Because, in other words, he played for Duke? Part of Ohio State's football troubles, remember, stemmed from Terrelle Pryor and others receiving discounts from a tattoo parlor.

Mike Bowers, the store's lawyer, told AP he didn't know why the company extended Thomas credit for most of the purchase.

"Speaking hypothetically, if he came in on a bicycle with tattered jeans, I doubt seriously he would have been sold jewelry, but I'm not drawing conclusions. The terms are clear."

The NCAA is clear about extra benefits and the punishment -- "Receipt by a student-athlete of an award, benefit or expense allowance not authorized by NCAA legislation renders the student-athlete ineligible for athletics competition in the sport for which the improper award, benefit or expense was received."

And that's where things could get messy for Duke and for the NCAA, even if no one at Duke had any knowledge of Thomas' transaction.

[+] EnlargeLance Thomas, Mike Krzyzewski
AP Photo/Michael ConroyIf the NCAA gets involved in the Lance Thomas matter, might Duke's 2010 title be in danger?

Ask Memphis. The Tigers' Final Four run was vacated because of what the NCAA calls 'strict liability' after Derrick Rose was deemed ineligible due to an allegedly fraudulent SAT score.

The Blue Devils won a national championship with Thomas on the floor, beating Butler in an epic 2010 title game that ended only after Gordon Hayward's half-court heave clanked off the back of the rim.

The BCS stripped USC of its national title in the wake of the Reggie Bush scandal, but the NCAA has never taken away a championship in men's or women's basketball. Final Four runs have been given the dreaded asterisk -- 11 of them, in fact -- but, to the good fortune of the NCAA, all of those teams fell just short of a national title.

If -- and it's a big if here -- Thomas is rendered ineligible, the first champ to fall could be, of all schools, Duke.

The NCAA, as of now, has failed to penalize North Carolina basketball in the university's recent academic scandal, which has created a firestorm across the country. The process is far from over in Chapel Hill, but there are more than a few people who are convinced the NCAA will never go after its sacred cows.

Now here sits Duke, the nation's pre-eminent program when it comes to the combination of success and reputation -- with a lawsuit that at least raises troublesome questions, an NCAA that has dubbed itself more proactive when it comes to enforcement, and a feverish sports world that wants instantaneous punishment and explanation.

The jeweler simply wanted his money.

Now everyone else wants answers.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball