USA Basketball has been implicated in an eligibility case involving one of its most talented young players. Maori Davenport, a native of Troy, Ala., has had her eligibility called into question in a back-and-forth dispute involving a small stipend for players to use when playing for USA Basketball.
Davenport was sent a check for $857 after participating in a USA Basketball competition in Mexico City last summer. However, what USA Basketball failed to do for Davenport as well as three other players, was to conduct a simple due diligence investigation to determine the rules of relevant state athletic associations, which, in Davenport’s case, is the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
Rule 1, Section 8 of the eligibility bylaws of the Alabama association holds that: “[A]n amateur is one who does not use his/her knowledge of athletics or athletic skill for gain.” Alabama High School Athletic Association Handbook 2019-2019, Section 8 (2018). Thus, the check that USA Basketball paid to Davenport rendered her ineligible to play her senior high school season.
Davenport, currently committed to play for Rutgers later this year, was sanctioned with a one-year suspension, which would take away the remainder of her high school eligibility. This penalty is mandated by the accompanying penalty provision to Section 8.
Most experts agree that the Alabama association’s executive director’s (Steve Savarese) treatment of USA Basketball’s error was unnecessarily harsh, and that the director’s decision was more about his manipulation of power than Davenport’s athletic career.
Savarese has tried to deflect blame onto USA Basketball and Davenport’s mother, a volunteer assistant coach for the high school team. Even though this was not the fault of the player, Savarese states that he is just enforcing the rules, despite the outpouring of support for Davenport from USA Basketball and professional athletes across the country.
USA Basketball has admitted its mistake and also claims that Davenport’s immediate return of the money should have been the end of the dispute.
The acceptance of the payment, nonetheless, constitutes a violation of the aforementioned rule. USA Basketball, as a national governing body, is responsible for being mindful of these rules. The greater issue is the standard to which Davenport is being held to know these rules for herself, regardless of whether she broke the rules, intentionally or not.
Davenport’s high school challenged the ruling pursuant to its rights under the state association’s bylaws. Article XI states that an official ruling made by the executive director may be appealed to the applicable district board for the school. In addition, that district board’s ruling may be appealed to the association’s Central Board of Control, which has the final authority on any appeal.
The school initially appealed to the District 2 board, which unanimously upheld Savarese’s ruling. The school then appealed to the association’s central board, which also upheld the ruling.
The two boards focused on the fact that the rule was clearly violated, making the analysis fairly simple. Generally, a plaintiff may not obtain judicial relief if he or she has not first exhausted their administrative remedies. Allen v. Grand Central Aircraft Co., 347 U.S. 535, 553 (1954). Therefore, the only recourse left for the school and Davenport was to go to court.
Davenport filed suit seeking a permanent injunction against the association and its executive director. Signaling a major victory for the plaintiffs, a temporary restraining order was granted in mid-January, preventing the association from carrying out its punishment of Davenport.
In his ruling on the restraining order, the judge granted immediate relief on the basis that the association’s ruling was invalid, and that their decision-making process was arbitrary and based on collusion and fraud. Davenport v. Savarese, et al., CV-2019-000002 (2019).
However, this order was not a decision on the merits, therefore the defendants did not have their chance to fully respond and will get that chance to oppose the order in court at the rehearing. Al. R. Civ. P. 65(b).
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and requested that the school and its principal be added as plaintiffs in the interim. In their motion, the defendants reaffirmed that there was a clear violation of the rules, despite the timely return of the money. Davenport v. Savarese, et al., CV-2019-000002 (2019).
Unfortunately for Davenport, if the court were to reject a permanent injunction, and assuming no relief on appeal, outside of losing athletic eligibility for the remainder of her senior year, Davenport could also be at risk of losing her scholarship and other advancement opportunities.
Alabama courts have generally rejected appeals by plaintiffs in disputes with the association. Davenport’s best arguments will likely expand on the judge’s ruling of the corrupt and fraudulent process of denying her eligibility.
According to the lawsuit, many of these claims, including claims of unjust treatment for a clerical error, are rooted in past decisions by the association that have shown a pattern of arbitrary decision-making, without any real substance as to why the directors made their decisions.
Davenport also has another fact in her favor, one of the other players, residing in a different state, who received an inadvertent check from USA Basketball has been deemed eligible to play.
While the association does not have to engage in deference to other states’ policies, the court may find it helpful to consider how other state associations have rendered decisions in cases such as these. The Davenport court may find, as the lawsuit describes, that most other states have handled this situation differently.
An Alabama case that the plaintiffs most likely will rely on is from 1984. In it, the Alabama Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that due process was not afforded to an athlete deemed ineligible by the association. Similar to the allegations of the present case, there were claims against the executive director for abuse of power and influence. Alabama High School Athletic Association v. Rose, 446 So. 2d 1 (1984).
An additional issue to consider for the school are penalties that it will face should Davenport be deemed ineligible. The association’s “school restitution rule” (clearly modeled after the NCAA’s own Restitution Rule) states that if a disqualified student is allowed to play under a temporary order by a court of law, and if the order is later vacated, the school will face penalties for all contests in which that student participated. Alabama High School Athletic Association Handbook 2019-2019, Section 10 “School Restitution Rule” (2018).
Given the success of the team with Davenport, the school may face additional problems should Davenport be permanently ineligible.
A rehearing scheduled for last week was postponed after Davenport was granted a motion to postpone to allow the parties to determine deadlines for answers to various outstanding motions. Savarese, et al., CV-2019-000002 (2019).