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No sympathy for everyone in LeBron James scandal

BY STEVE JACKSON
The SportsMonday Column
Published February 3, 2003

The Chosen One was still driving his Hummer H2 to basketball to practice Friday, and before long someone else about his age will probably be driving a real Humvee into Baghdad.

If LeBron James asked me for sympathy, I would tell him to look in the dictionary. He can find it there - between shit and syphilis.

The people painting James as a victim have lost touch with reality.

Barring legal action against the Ohio High School Athletic Association, James won't play high school basketball again. Big deal. That's more time to spend talking with shoe company executives. Untold millions of dollars are still waiting for the consensus No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. If he gets bored with the kids in his history class, he can still chat on his cell phone with Kobe, MJ, or Shaq.

It was always good to be King James, and it still is.

Which begs the question: What good came out of Friday's decision by the OHSAA? What is it they were hoping to accomplish?

If they were hoping to double the media circus surrounding the prep scene in Akron, it worked.

If they were hoping to stop the top-ranked Fighting Irish from winning a state title, odds are good they will be successful on that front as well.

But if they were really hoping to punish James or the money-grubbing people around him, they failed.

OHSAA commissioner Clair Muscaro said that because James accepted two free "throwback" jerseys from a local store he forfeited his amateur status forever.

James is the first athlete Muscaro has declared ineligible in his 14 years as commissioner.

"I think this sends a message that we are all about fairness," Muscaro told reporters Friday. "We will treat him the same as all our other athletes."

Really? I'm not sure which is harder to believe: The fact that a Wes Unseld jersey costs $450 or that accepting one is the worst crime ever perpetrated by a prep basketball player in Ohio.

No one has ever treated James fairly. Why start now?

An OHSAA bylaw states that a player is forbidden from "capitalizing on athletic fame by receiving money or gifts of monetary value" over $100.

Never mind how impossible that law is to enforce, the real story lies in the bylaws that don't exist.

The OHSAA had no rules that prevent "The Scholastic Fantastic LeBron James Tour" from making stops in California, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Nowhere in the bylaws is there a provision that halts pay-per-view deals or limos to take King James to one of many college arenas. His high school charged tens of thousands of dollars in appearance fees for each game. The list goes on and on.

The professionalization of high school and college sports is nothing new, but steps can be taken to prevent another school from using an athlete for money the way St. Vincent-St. Mary's has.

If Muscaro is really interested in preserving some variant of "fairness" or "amateurism," he should address the real issues that caused this issue to blow up in the first place: Travel. Television. Money.

In Michigan, games cannot be aired on live national television and teams are not allowed to travel more than 300 miles one way.

By declaring James ineligible this week, the OHSAA did the equivalent of issuing Al Capone a parking ticket.

Flying around the country and airing games live on ESPN did more to tip the scales in favor of St. Vincent-St. Mary's than 10,000 "throwback" jerseys ever could. Instead of looking to solve the core problems it faced, the OHSAA merely followed its overly simplistic and arbitrary rules with blind vindictiveness.

The OHSAA did nothing to discourage future phenoms from coming to Ohio and bastardizing amateurism again. It did nothing to prevent parents from being forced to drop $50 to see their child play on Friday night. All it really did was bring undo attention to itself.

There are no heros in this story; no victims either. I don't feel James' pain; I don't admire Muscaro's actions.

If either of these characters want my sympathy, they know where to find it.

Steve Jackson can be reached at sjjackso@umich.edu.