Remembering Lasege

I don’t like equating the situation faced a decade ago by University of Louisville player Muhammad Lasege to the one faced now by University of Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter for one main reason. Lasege was a serious student. His intent was to play college basketball and earn a degree. He proved this by his actions. Even when basketball was taken from him, he finished his degree. He then played pro basketball overseas to save up money for graduate school, which he then used to earn an MBA from the presitious Wharton School of Business at Penn. Earlier this year, Lasege took an executive position with Exxon.

His story, I have said more than once, was one of the more unjust situations I’ve been around in college sports, and credit goes to people like Jim Milliman, his attorney, and Rick Pitino, who himself kept paying some of Lasege’s college expenses and working him out, for helping to make it a success story in the end.

Kanter, when all is said and done, is likely looking at college as a one-year pit stop on his way to the NBA Draft lottery. And while that’s all well and good in the current system, it’s not the same as it would be for a player whose heart is on the college game.

So I’m not equating the two stories. But I do share Lasege’s story again here because I think he’s worth remembering.

And I share it because it shapes my thoughts on some of these matters.

And I must admit — I like to point out the inconsistency in our two rabid fan bases. U of L fans are writing me telling UK was wrong to go after a player with Kanter’s background in the European pro leagues. They forget how U of L — rightly — fought for Lasege, until it had to side against him in court. And they forget a kid like Simeon Naydenov, who had to repay money and sit games for the exact same reason.

UK fans, of course, were among the harshest critics of Lasege, and it was four UK Law School graduates on the Kentucky Supreme Court (coincidentally) who ended Lasege’s legal battle against the NCAA (in a 4-3 vote). Karma, anyone?

The college sports establishment — right down to the American Council on Education — fought against Lasege, filing briefs in court against his efforts to play. But his efforts in court, certainly, benefited players who came after. NCAA guidelines have changed.

The amount of money in Kanter’s situation dwarfs that of most cases of this kind. I don’t see how the NCAA could clear him, based on the amounts reported. But we don’t know if those amounts are accurate, so we’ll have to wait and see.

But my position on these matters has been consistent — foreign players should not be held to a higher standard than American players. And the money being lavished on American prep players is a far bigger threat to the NCAA’s amateur mission than anything going on overseas.

Now, the Lasege story. He’s one of the more admirable college athletes I’ve been around, and it’s been good to see that nice guys can indeed finish first, with or without college basketball.

The agony and odyssey of Lasege
Nigerian takes case to court today

By ERIC CRAWFORD
The Courier-Journal
Dec. 15, 2000

On Oct. 8, 1997, Muhammed Lasege boarded a plane in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, and took off on a basketball odyssey. His destination that day was no hoops hotbed. It was Moscow, where he says he expected to obtain a travel visa to the United States in hopes of playing college basketball.

Three years later, the 6-foot11 Nigerian is on a basketball scholarship at the University of Louisville, but his playing career still hasn’t gotten off the runway. Last month, after an 18-month process, the NCAA ruled him ineligible for what it called “an intent to professionalize” when he signed a pair of professional contracts in Russia in 1997 and ’98.

Between his departure from Lagos and his arrival in Louisville in June 1999, Lasege has experienced the kind of intrigue that action movies are made of. In a lawsuit he has filed against the NCAA to gain his eligibility, he says he has encountered “con artists, Russian mafia, armed guards, threats, coercion, repression, deceit . . . and betrayal.”

Along the way, Lasege also committed 12 NCAA rule violations, including accepting more than $6,700 in expense money from various questionable sources. His attorney, James Milliman, says the hurdles Lasege encountered on the road from Lagos to Louisville were nothing compared with the maze of NCAA regulations for international students and what Milliman calls “the monolithic power of the NCAA.”

After failing to convince the NCAA that special circumstances and precedents dictate that he should be eligible to play for U of L, Lasege today will take his case to Jefferson Circuit Court, where he will ask for an injunction to order the NCAA to restore his eligibility.

The odds are long against him ever playing for U of L. Even if the court orders his eligibility restored, U of L – which remains under NCAA probation until next August – might be hesitant to allow him to play for fear it could face further NCAA repercussions if the court order eventually was overturned.

LASEGE HAS not granted a media interview since U of L’s basketball media day in 1999. But he has given numerous interviews to NCAA and school officials, and through those – obtained by The Courier-Journal in an open-records request – a picture emerges of a young man desperate to play college basketball.

That desire is the centerpiece of the case that his attorney will make.

“If I knew it was going to affect my eligibility, I wouldn’t have signed anything,” Lasege told U of L director of compliance Neil Brooks on Nov. 10, 1999. “My only goal was to play college basketball.”

Based on correspondence between U of L and the NCAA, this is how his story unfolded:

Lasege was approached early in 1997 by a coach in Nigeria, Toyan Sinoiki, about finding a U.S. college to attend. Lasege said he was interested, but he knew from the experience of friends that obtaining a travel visa to the United States from Nigeria was, as he said, “close to impossible.”

Sinoiki said he had a friend in the United States, a Virginia AAU coach named Patrick Boggs, who had a connection in Russia who could help Lasege get a travel visa to this country.

That connection was Boris Kariban, an employee of the New Sport company in Moscow, who told Sinoiki that he would send Lasege and three other Nigerians to the United States within 30 days of their arrival in Russia after helping them obtain the Russian work permit that would be needed to get a travel visa.

In the meantime they would participate in workouts that were to be attended by college coaches.

But instead of spending several weeks in Russia, Lasege and his friends were stranded there for the next eight months. As soon as they arrived, New Sport officials confiscated their passports. “That made me very uncomfortable,” Lasege said in an interview with Brooks. “But I assumed that it was necessary for them to complete the paperwork for a travel visa.”

Three weeks later, Lasege was brought to the New Sport offices and given a contract with copies in Russian and English. The three-year agreement detailed his living arrangements and provided for payment of $9,000 U.S., as well as a bonus structure.

Lasege was told it was a standard “working agre
ement” and was necessary to obtain a visa. He was told to disregard the dollar amount because he would not be paid the money. When he questioned it, he was told that he was not good enough to play for a U.S. college team and that he would need to play more in Russia.

Reluctantly, he signed.

“I felt I had no choice,” he told Brooks.

After signing, Lasege was placed with a junior team associated with the Moscow Dynamo club team. He was provided with an apartment and a cook, as well as game equipment. At the same time, an armed bodyguard was assigned to him and his roommates. The bodyguard monitored their every move and also served as a chauffeur. (Later, the NCAA determined the bodyguard to be a “perk.”)

As time went on, Lasege became more impatient that he had not received a travel visa. After he made several attempts to call family and friends in Nigeria from the apartment, the phones were disconnected.

He became defiant and stopped practicing. At this, team officials became very upset and began to threaten him. The threats were taken seriously after one player from Africa suffered a knee injury when a guard hit him with a rifle butt.

“They said that I should practice or there would be severe consequences,” Lasege said in several interviews. “They told me if I didn’t practice, I would never play basketball anywhere.”

He resumed practicing through May 1998, when he asked for permission to return to Lagos for a holiday. On June 1, the day before his planned departure, team officials presented him with another “working agreement.” This was a four-year contract, in English, with the Autodorov Saratov club team. Lasege was told that if he did not sign, the club would not pay for his ticket home. He signed.

He planned never to return to Russia, but New Sport officials lured him back by telling him that his work permit had been granted and that college coaches were coming to see him work out.

In November 1998, Lasege finally found a way out. He received an invitation to visit the University of Buffalo through a Canadian sister institution, the College of Halifax. He obtained a Canadian visa and flew to Toronto two days after Christmas in 1998.

Lasege never showed up at Buffalo. Instead, he was met in Canada by Slavko Duric, an exporter who has supported a number of foreign athletes looking to make their way to the United States. Duric and a friend, Donovan Brown, provided him with lodging, food, travel and other expenses, all of which later were ruled to be NCAA violations.

Duric also paved the way for Lasege to receive a basketball scholarship from U of L by paying for an unofficial trip to the university, as well as a visit to UCLA.

THE NCAA is dealing with an increasing number of cases involving athletes signing contracts and accepting money – so many, in fact, that it crafted a set of guidelines to handle these cases late last year. The guidelines involve a two-pronged test, the first focusing on the individual’s intent to professionalize, the second focusing on any competitive advantage gained from the individual’s actions.

If the NCAA finds a clear intent to professionalize, the guidelines say that the individual “may not warrant reinstatement.” But where there is uncertainty, the NCAA may consider the amount of compensation received, the level of the professional league, whether special circumstances exist surrounding the signing of the contract and the individual’s knowledge of NCAA legislation at the time of the violation.

“They didn’t follow their own guidelines,” Milliman said. “. . . This kid met every guideline for reinstatement they have. And they have tried to ignore that by saying he intended to play professional basketball, and they’re basing that solely on his signing of a contract.

“They ignore his age. They ignore the duress he was under. They ignore the other circumstances. This kid signs a $9,000 pro contract in Russia, and they believe that was his goal. That’s some life, playing basketball in Saratov for $9,000 a year.”

The NCAA also cited case precedent as a reason for denying Lasege eligibility, but Milliman will go to court today with an armload of case precedent that he says supports Lasege. Among the examples:

— A player who signed a professional contract in Australia received expenses for housing, transportation and meals and played for the pro team for five years without salary. The NCAA ruling: The athlete’s eligibility was restored after 15 percent of a season.

— A player who signed a contract to play for an Australian national league that was professional in nature. The athlete received expenses and $3,000. The ruling: The athlete was required to sit out one season and donate $3,000 to charity.

— An athlete who signed a pro basketball contract in France. He received $3,800 in compensation and played 12 games with the club’s highest-level team. The ruling: His eligibility was reinstated upon repayment of $3,800, and he was withheld from the remainder of the current season and the first three games of the next.

Milliman also will cite the NCAA’s efforts to deregulate its process concerning amateurism. An NCAA news release announcing the initiative admits that there has been some inconsistency in eligibility rulings on amateurism.

The NCAA, as a matter of policy, refuses to discuss the eligibility cases of student-athletes. Its rationale for denying Lasege’s eligibility came in two sentences: “Based on case precedent and the subcommittee’s 1999 amateurism guidelines involving contracts and professional teams. Specifically, the staff focused on (Lasege’s) decisions to sign explicit contracts with a sports agent (New Sport) and a professional team.”

But in questions to Lasege during an interview at U of L on July 13, NCAA representatives Laura Wurtz and Deana Garner illustrated other NCAA concerns.

They asked him if he ever tried to apply for a U.S. visa on his own in Nigeria, and he told them he had not because “he did not like being denied.”

They asked if he ever tried to apply for a U.S. visa in Russia independently of New Sport; he told them he had not. They established that neither he nor his traveling partners ever asked about their U.S. visas in their first meeting with New Sport representatives in Russia.

Lasege was shown copies of the contracts he signed and asked about his understanding of the agreements. When he filled out his international student-athlete form at U of L, he stated in it that he had never signed a contract. He told the NCAA that he wrote this because he didn’t believe the documents he signed were contracts.

They also questioned him about the clothes he packed to take to Russia – “two pairs of jeans and a couple of other items” – and asked why he wouldn’t take more if he thought he was going to be there a month. Lasege said that he expected to be going to the United States and that people dress differently in Lagos than in this country.

The NCAA representatives asked him if he knew he was practicing with professional teams in Russia. He said he did.

BY ALL accounts, Lasege has been a model student. In two semesters last school year – during which he paid his own tuition, room and board – he posted a 3.9 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale.

He has put to rest any questions about academic qualifications, which were in large part responsible for the length of the administrative process. It took the NCAA five months to receive one test score from Nigeria, which then was judged to be a forgery.

The U of L provost’s office allowed him to stay in school only because he produced an authentic score shortly after and because of his excellent grades in his first semester. After Lasege proved himself in the classroom, a U of L investigation into his dealings in Russia and Canada took
months to complete.

U of L determined that he had accepted $6,730 in expenses over the past two years from various sources, but he was willing to repay it.

“At this point he doesn’t quite understand why he shouldn’t be allowed to play,” Milliman said. “He has sat out for a year and a half. He sees American players who took money and signed with agents and declared for the draft being able to play, yet he can’t.

“You’ve got a Nigerian kid who the NCAA is holding to a higher standard than American kids. That’s the guts of our complaint. He is entitled to a consistent application of the rules. . . .

“Everything he did in Russia, some sharp NCAA staff person may look back on and say, ‘He shouldn’t have done this.’ But when you put yourself in his shoes, everything he did was geared toward getting to the U.S. to go to school. We want him to get that chance.”

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