Maori Davenport still spends all of her time in the gym. When she’s not in class at Charles Henderson High in Troy, Ala., or answering questions of probing adults at the grocery store, the U-18 Team USA gold medalist is on the court, trying to stay motivated, optimistic for a resolution that may never come.
Since late November, Davenport, a high school basketball star, has been sidelined for her senior season because of a disputed eligibility ruling stemming from a mistaken payment by USA Basketball. The Rutgers commit says she remains hopeful she can play with her high school teammates one last time.
But despite national outrage from influential figures throughout the sport, the Alabama High School Athletic Association, the organization responsible for ruling on Davenport’s eligibility, is holding firm that she won’t. The AHSAA doubled down on its decision Monday, reiterating that based on AHSAA bylaws and rules, there can be no further action taken by the state association.
“I don’t understand why it is so hard to change it,” Davenport said Monday night. “I feel like it is an easy fix. To be honest, I don’t care whose fault it is. I just want to play again.”
Davenport was ruled ineligible for receiving and cashing a $857.20 check from USA Basketball for “lost wages” in the summer while helping lead Team USA to a gold medal in the FIBA Americas U-18 Championship in Mexico City. Davenport and her family were unaware that by cashing the check — which USA Basketball offers to all of its players as a stipend for lost wages and to recover costs associated with competing on the team — she violated AHSAA bylaws and rules, until three months later, when USA Basketball contacted her. The organization stated that it made a “clerical error” by not confirming whether the AHSAA allowed such payments before sending the check, as it usually does with state associations to avoid creating any eligibility issues for athletes. The payments are permitted by the NCAA and some state athletic organizations.
When informed of the error, Davenport’s mother, Tara Davenport, immediately wrote a check to USA Basketball to repay the money, in addition to paying an extra $40 to send the check back in 72 hours. Tara said she did not question the check initially, because it was from USA Basketball. In her eyes, the national organization was — and still is — trustworthy and reliable.
Tara then contacted AHSAA to self-report the check and inform them she had sent it back. However, the AHSAA ruled Davenport ineligible, sparking an appeal process and, last week, a public outcry following a widely shared article on espnW.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas was one of the first to rip AHSAA’s ruling, in multiple tweets that included: “Ridiculous. And, we ‘adults’ fall all over ourselves saying we’re in it for the players, and we yak incessantly about ‘athlete welfare.’ Maddening. Some common sense might help.”
Additionally, the WNBA, Spalding and several current and past WNBA and NBA players have spoken out against AHSAA.
“I don’t think this is a real difficult situation,” said WNBA Dallas Wings Coach Brian Agler, who has seen many of his players represent Team USA on the women’s national team. “I’m just puzzled by the regality of the Alabama High School State Association. … It’s one adult group denying her the eligibility while another adult group also made an error.”
The public outcry led Johnny Hardin, president of the central board of control of the AHSAA, to release a detailed statement Monday defending the association for its ruling, which stands by its claim that Davenport violated the Amateur Rule:
“A student cannot accept payment for loss of time or wages while participating in athletics as part of expenses . . . A student who has lost his/her amateur standing may be reinstated after the lapse of one high school season for the sport in which he/she has become professional.”
The statement details Davenport was originally ruled ineligible by Steve Savarese, AHSAA Executive Director, in late November, based on the language of the Amateur Rule. Following Savarese’s ruling, her high school appealed to both appellate levels for the AHSAA, where the decision to make Davenport ineligible was upheld twice by unanimous vote.
“I just think they are trying to punish me because they can’t punish Team USA,” Maori said of AHSAA.
Craig Miller, USA Basketball’s chief communication officer, said the organization holds itself accountable for its mistake and has supported Davenport’s appeal, hoping that she can return to the court. The AHSAA statement claims the mistake from USA Basketball was “a complete lack of administrative oversight on the part of USA Basketball."
“The point of it is, to me, Maori did not do anything wrong,” said Tara Davenport, Maori’s mother. “That is my whole point. Why is she being punished? And they aren’t answering that. … I can’t wrap my mind around it. The check was sent to her.
“I cannot understand for the world why they are holding onto this rule that really doesn't match the situation.”
The AHSAA statement points blame to multiple parties involved, including USA Basketball, Charles Henderson Coach Dyneshia Jones and Tara, claiming that because she is a certified AHSAA coach, she is “required to uphold current AHSAA bylaws and rules.”
Tara, a fifth-grade teacher who has been in the school system for 16 years, rebutted the statement, saying she primarily coaches middle school basketball and has only assisted at the varsity level.
“We have always been super careful and for this to happen, it is mind-blowing,” she said. “But I think about what I could have done differently and I don’t think I would have done anything differently, because it came from USA. I thought simply because the check was coming from USA, we were good, and that was it.”
Charles Henderson Principal Brock Kelley has been critical of the AHSAA’s approach.
“My school has respectfully proceeded through the steps of the appeal process, but we have been met with a ‘rules are rules mind-set’ throughout,” Kelley wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “I understand rules and believe in the fundamental aspects of rules. However, in this case, this is beyond the basketball court, beyond the rule book, and beyond this basketball season. This case is about character. It’s about integrity. It’s about doing the right thing and correcting a mistake when [it is] realized.”
Davenport was not the only player from the U-18 team to receive a check from USA Basketball under the same circumstances. When Anaya Peoples, a Notre Dame commit out of Illinois, was notified of the mistake, her high school athletic director contacted the state athletic association to let them know Peoples’s family would be returning the check, and was told that there would be “no repercussions.”
An official from the National Federation of State High School Associations, of which AHSAA is a member, stated the national organization has no control over the rules interpretations made by each state association and therefore is unable to influence or change any rulings.
Davenport, who is left waiting to see if the AHSAA changes its mind on the ruling, said she holds no animosity toward USA Basketball — which is trying to get Davenport into the McDonald’s all-American game. Instead, she said, she is choosing to use her situation as a motivator.
“That’s all I do nowadays,” Davenport said. “I’m just in the gym. . . . I really, really do want to play again, but if I can’t play again I would like for the Alabama High School Athletic Association to make sure that no other high school student goes through this, no other student-athlete in Alabama goes through this. I want to be the last one.”