Appeals to state boards and outcries from some of the most prominent voices in the sport have not been able to save Maori Davenport’s senior basketball season, and now it really may be over.
Davenport, 18, is one of the best girls basketball players in the country. Last season, she averaged 18.2 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.2 blocks a game in leading Charles Henderson High School to the Alabama Class 5A state title. The year before, in a losing effort in the state title game, Davenport had 20 points and 25 rebounds and swatted away 19 shots, an Alabama state record. She has committed to play at Rutgers next season.
On Nov. 30, Davenport, a 6-foot-4 forward from Troy, Ala., was called into her principal’s office and told that the Alabama High School Athletic Association had ruled her ineligible for one year.
The reason for the suspension was not poor grades or unsportsmanlike conduct. It was a clerical error that U.S.A. Basketball, the sport’s national governing body, readily admits to having made, making Davenport’s suspension one of the more mind-bending stories for those who follow amateur sports.
“That was very heartbreaking for me,” Davenport said this week of the suspension. “The only thing I could think is that I was in shock and devastated.”
The trouble began harmlessly enough over the summer, when Davenport was selected to represent the United States at the FIBA Under-18 Women’s Americas Championship in Mexico City. She led the team in rebounding and blocks as it won gold.
U.S.A. Basketball compensates players who compete on national teams to make up for wages they could have earned working summer jobs rather than practicing or competing. The N.C.A.A. allows college athletes to accept these payments. It calls them “broken time payments.”
For players with high school eligibility remaining, U.S.A. Basketball typically inquires with individual state high school athletics associations to see if the payments can be accepted. Policies can vary by state.
In this case, because of what Craig Miller, a spokesman for U.S.A. Basketball, termed a “clerical error,” nobody checked with the state high school athletic associations for the three players on the under-18 team with high school eligibility remaining. U.S.A. Basketball sent a check for $857.20 to Davenport and every other player on the team. On Aug. 27, Mario Davenport, Maori’s father, received it. Two days later, she cashed it.
Two months later, U.S.A. Basketball realized the error. In November, an employee called the Alabama athletics association, which told the U.S.A. Basketball employee that under Alabama rules, athletes could accept broken time payments only if the value was less than $200. On Nov. 26, a U.S.A. Basketball official called Davenport’s mother, Tara Davenport, and informed her that Maori was not allowed to accept the stipend. The next day, Tara Davenport self-reported the violation to the state association and informed Charles Henderson High School officials, and on Nov. 28 she repaid U.S.A. Basketball.
Two days later, the state ruled Davenport ineligible for the rest of the season. Two appeals boards have upheld the ruling. There is nowhere else for the Davenports to appeal. Unless state athletic officials change their mind, Davenport’s high school career could very well be over.
Tara Davenport said she hopes media attention, as well as pressure from Alabama politicians, will convince the association to change the ruling. The Alabama House Republican Caucus has unanimously approved a resolution supporting Davenport. And if the association’s officials do not change their minds?
“If they don’t, we are definitely going to take some legal action to try to help get her on the court,” she said.
Since Maori Davenport’s final appeal was denied in December, attention and pressure have been building.
The story gained national attention recently after Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst who was once called “the N.C.A.A.’s most dangerous critic,” wrote a column blistering Steve Savarese, the executive director for the state athletic association. Bilas accused Savarese of “blindly asserting authority without regard for whom it may hurt, or the reasonable likelihood of a similar issue recurring in the future.” The tennis legend Billie Jean King on Thursday joined the N.B.A. star DeMarcus Cousins and a chorus of others in voicing their support for the player.
The association declined to make Savarese available for an interview. On Tuesday, Johnny Hardin, the president of the association’s Central Board of Control — which heard and denied Davenport’s final appeal — released a statement asserting that “facts involved in the ruling have either been misstated or ignored.”
According to Brock Kelley, the Charles Henderson High School principal, it’s the association’s facts that are misleading.
Hardin’s statement says that Tara Davenport is a certified basketball coach and therefore should know the eligibility rules. Kelley wrote in an email that Tara Davenport, who is a fifth-grade teacher, coaches middle school basketball, for which there is no rules test. Hardin’s statement says Kelley has not attended an association rules conference for the past three years. Kelley wrote that his school’s athletic director had attended each one, and besides, the amateurism rule was not even covered at the last meeting.
Tara Davenport emphasized that neither she nor her daughter hid the check. They simply thought that U.S.A. Basketball had done its due diligence and that they could accept it.
“I reported it as soon as I knew that Maori wasn’t supposed to have it,” she said.
Kelley, the high school principal, and Miller, the U.S.A. Basketball spokesman, focused on how institutionalized these payments are. After U.S.A. Basketball sent the check but before Davenport received it, Kelley wrote, she received a call from Jeff Walz. Walz is the women’s basketball coach at the University of Louisville, and was also the coach of the United States under-18 team. Walz asked Tara Davenport if she had received the check yet. She said she had not, and asked whether Maori could accept it. Walz told her that she was allowed to, and that it was permitted by the N.C.A.A.
Louisville officials did not respond to a request to comment.
In Maori Davenport’s absence, the Charles Henderson High School girls basketball team has won all but two games and is the top-ranked 5A team in the state. Davenport is attending school, going to practices and working on her game with an outside trainer. She said she was focusing on ball-handling skills and other drills that would allow her to play more as a wing.
For now, she has nothing but time.