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Sports Attorney Don Jackson Makes His Case Against The NCAA10:58
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(Courtesy Don Jackson)
(Courtesy Don Jackson)

Don Jackson is a sports attorney. He represents athletes, coaches and even schools.

When Jackson meets prospective clients for the first time, he tells them, “If you want to remain in the good graces of the people on the other side of the fence, I’m probably the wrong attorney for you.”

Over the years, Jackson has made a lot of enemies. A staffer at the NCAA has called him "a bully.” Fans of college sports have complained about his use of the "race card.”

KG: You told the Sporting News that the NCAA’s actions in regard to one unnamed African American basketball prospect were, "Profoundly, openly, and unapologetically ..." Would you like to finish the quote for me?

DJ: "... racist as hell." That was a comment that wasn’t made in a vacuum. That was a comment that was made based on over two decades — almost three decades — of observation of selective application of NCAA rules.

KG: I want to go back and unpack how you came to this opinion. Do you remember when it was when you first started thinking, "Oh, this isn't just individual cases of racism in the NCAA and how they're applying their laws, but this is a pattern?"

"If the speed limit is 55 and everyone’s ticketed for going 56, I have no problem with that."

Don Jackson, sports attorney

DJ: I think the case that really opened my eyes was a case from around 2002. From that point on, I started to see other cases where investigators applied rules in a selectively harsh way — even the questioning involved in another case, where I had an investigator question a young man about, quote — whether he had enough food to eat in Mississippi.

KG: Wait a minute, he asked him if he had enough food to eat? What was the basis of that question?

DJ: Over a decade later, I'm still wondering. Keep in mind that the vast majority of the young people I represent are not African American or international. However, I can give you a list of questions and types of actions that I've seen over the years carried out by NCAA investigators regarding African American student athletes and international that, frankly, are quite troubling. I've seen scenarios where African American student-athletes are required to produce written coursework from the 9th grade.

KG: Do you mean they have to show their homework or their tests?

DJ: They literally have to provide actual term papers, quizzes, tests. The problem is, disproportionately that occurs to African American and international student-athletes.

KG: So another pattern that you've pointed out involves ACT scores. Explain that one to me.

DJ: Well, conferences, NCAA and schools can "red flag" a student athlete's test scores. OK, if you have a young person that made a 12 on the ACT the first time, a 13 the second time, a 13 the third time and a 29 or a 30 the fourth time, that particular situation likely would be red flagged.

But I've seen numerous instances involving student-athletes that only took the exam one time, made a satisfactory score, a decent score, a 19, a 20, a 21. And, after having taken it one time, they were red flagged.

Disproportionately, the athletes that are impacted by these red flags or test reviews are either African American or international student-athletes.

KG: Let's talk about tax returns and other financial documents. What pattern do you see there?

DJ: Same thing. Families of student-athletes are required to provide bank records for savings, checking accounts, titles to cars, home mortgage agreements.

KG: And just to be clear, these universities and NCAA investigators are assuming that these families must be taking money from agents or schools or other places?

DJ: That is correct. They're assuming that every car that's purchased in a family was purchased through illicit sources, that every vacation that was taken by family members was taken through illicit sources, that if a young man wears a gold chain around his neck or wears a pair of brand new, expensive basketball tennis shoes, that those shoes must have been purchased through some illicit source.

Quite often, the student-athletes are then cleared. They're found not to have violated NCAA rules, but by the time they're cleared, they've already missed a quarter or even half of a season. If you don’t start playing until January, by that time the coaching staff, your teammates have gotten accustomed to playing without you.

KG: So I want to talk about one specific case. You represented an athlete named Renardo Sidney. He wasn't just asked to show his parents' tax forms. He was asked to show his grandparents' tax forms. What can you tell me about that case?

DJ: This is a young man that was the No. 1 high school player in America coming out of high school. And in my opinion, that investigation really damaged, adversely impacted, his entire career.

KG: Let's just be clear about what the NCAA seems to have been alleging at the beginning of this investigation, that he and his family lived in an expensive home in L.A. with no visible means of support while he played high school basketball.

DJ: Correct. Among other things, it was. They did indeed live in a very nice home when they relocated to California. But sometimes there is an assumption that they shouldn't be living there, that families in that situation don't have an entitlement to live there, or that someone is providing them "extra benefits" to afford them the ability to be there.

But the reality of the matter is, his mother worked, his father worked, and that's a question that a student-athlete should not have to answer in order to be allowed to play a collegiate sport.

The investigation did not end until the Friday before the end of the Southeastern Conference basketball season. Ultimately, he had a full year of eligibility taken away and nine games in his second year for not remembering something that wasn't even a violation. And, essentially, the association's decision regarding that was really nothing more than a way to justify having investigated him for a full year.

KG: Much more recently, Renardo Sidney told basketball analyst Jeff Goodman that his family did receive money while he was playing at Mississippi State. Sidney’s mom says that’s not true. But do Sidney’s statements now change the way you look at how the NCAA handled this case?

DJ: No, it doesn't, because the interesting thing is, the statements that he made apparently dealt with payments that were allegedly made to the family after he gained his eligibility. Anything occurring after he gained his eligibility, I have no information about that. But that case was one of the most selectively harsh cases that I've ever seen.

KG: This spring, something happened that brought a lot of this into focus for you — and that was the College Admissions Scandal.

DJ: I think the core assumption there was that since they were Caucasian private school kids, that they were inherently intelligent and inherently qualified enough to be admitted into these elite universities.

Because I can guarantee you that based on the facts in the cases that I've handled over the years, that had they been public school students from urban areas, or minority students, their test scores would have been questioned. And it would not have gotten to that point.

If the speed limit is 55 and everyone’s ticketed for going 56, I have no problem with that. If the only athletes that are being subjected to harsh enforcement measures are athletes from insular groups, that's troubling. And it is very much a systemic problem.

We contacted the NCAA this week to see if they had a response to Jackson’s claims. They said, in part, "The NCAA works to consistently apply member-directed standards for eligibility certification across all incoming student-athletes. The NCAA has publicly available standards for providing notice to a testing agency that there is a statistical anomaly based on specific GPA and test scores."

And one more note: While Renardo Sidney’s revelations that his family received money during his time at Mississippi State are the ones that made headlines, he also told Jeff Goodman that his family had accepted improper benefits while he was still in high school.

This segment aired on August 2, 2019.

Karen Given Twitter Executive Producer, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.

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