The most heralded rivalry in college sports is now officially a race to the bottom. After two years of steady revelations of corruption involving athletes at UNC–Chapel Hill, the school’s nearby Tobacco Road rival, Duke University, has joined the competition. Last week, Rafiello and Co., a jewelry company favored by music stars and professional athletes, filed suit against former Duke (and current NBA) basketball player Lance Thomas. The suit claims that Thomas failed to pay in full for $97,000 worth of jewelry he purchased during Duke’s 2009–10 run to the national championship.
What is most alarming is not that a pro athlete didn’t pay his bills — that’s common enough — but that Thomas could afford a $30,000 down payment on jewelry as a college senior. (I’m sure you all had that kind of money in college.) He comes from a middle-class background — certainly not poor, but also not from the kind of income bracket that permits such extravagances. The overwhelmingly likely answer to questions about where he got the money is a sports agent seeking to lock him into a future representation agreement. Taking money from sports agents while still on a college team is a serious NCAA infraction, the exact same one that got the UNC scandal rolling.
This raises a few other questions (or rather, a boatload of them). UNC used to boast of its honorable approach to college athletics, at the same time it was admitting athletes who struggled with remedial classes to a school at which the average freshman has 1300 SAT scores (math and reading). The athletes who took money from agents were among those very same non-students. It would be interesting to place Duke’s athletic department — which also has a pristine public image — under the same microscope that has exposed massive academic fraud at UNC. Thomas’s college transcript, along with his admissions application to ultra-picky Duke, might make interesting reading. The same goes for the transcripts of other Duke basketball and football players.
Of course, it will be much more difficult to uncover any corruption at Duke, which is private, than at public UNC, which is subject to freedom of information regulations.