When LeBron James was declared ineligible for the remainder of the high school basketball season last week for accepting two free replica jerseys from a clothing store, NBA players, columnists and cable television sports analysts cried foul. Many area high school coaches and players did too.
The consensus was that the punishment, handed down by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, was unfair. The severe sanction did not fit the relatively minor infraction, they said.
The OHSAA said James, considered the top prep player in America and the likely No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, broke Ohio's amateurism rules when he accepted the jerseys -- worth $845 -- after posing for photographs with the store's owner.
In most jurisdictions, including Maryland and the District, James would have been reinstated once he returned the merchandise (which he did), according to school officials.
But James wasn't. At least not until a judge stepped in on Wednesday and granted him a temporary reprieve, pending another hearing on Feb. 19.
"I don't think LeBron got treated fairly at all" by the OHSAA, said Suitland junior Bobby Maze, a guard on the Rams' basketball team. "Everybody gave him so much publicity. You had newspapers, the media and ESPN calling him the greatest high school player ever, and so they found a way to knock him down. Nobody wants someone to be so much better than everyone else, so they found something they could use against him, and they used it."
Most Washington area coaches said a suspension of one game or two games, if any at all, would have sufficed. Many said they thought James was singled out because of his fame; others felt the OHSAA was determined to suspend James for something, especially after it was unable to prove the $50,000 Hummer he drives was obtained in violation of amateurism rules.
"I would think a couple games suspension would be plenty," Potomac (Va.) boys' basketball coach Kendall Hayes said. "He made a mistake, but let's go on with it. I think it's a little harsh what was done."
"They tried to get him for the truck, but were unsuccessful," said Kennedy boys' basketball coach Diallo Nelson. "So they kept snooping around, looking for any little thing he did against the rules. They were determined to get him, and eventually they did."
But not everyone agrees.
"I support the Ohio association and the rule," said Bruce Patrick, Fairfax County's coordinator of student activities and athletics. "The rule was put in place for a reason. It's been well thought out by educators, who have years of experience. And they obviously feel that it is imperative to protecting an athlete's amateur status."
"The punishment was just," Westlake boys' basketball coach Jimmy Ball said. "It would be like if you stole $1,000 and gave the money back. You still committed the crime."
Except James did not commit a crime. He did not steal the jerseys. He did not assault anyone. He made a mistake -- the same mistake most high school-aged basketball players would have made in the same situation. He took the jerseys and said, "Thanks."
"Any kid who is offered something for free is going to take it," Middletown boys' basketball coach John Jarrett said. "I doubt he even knew he was breaking any rules."
-- Tarik El-Bashir