I was basking mightily, if I may say, late yesterday morning after I learned Governor Bill Haslam, in one of his last acts before leaving office, had granted total clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a sex-trafficking victim. That Brown has already served 15 years for killing “a John,” a lout who bought her from a ruthless pimp when the girl was 16 years old, is very much a victim in her own right, is now moot. What matters is our Governor did the right thing.
And then comes the email only hours later from one of my lifelong “dirt dog” buddies in Alabama. In rural Alabama a “dirt dog” is a breed unto itself, one that can run the ditches all night if it takes it, and back in the day I loved to run those ditches with some lively boys. Also, believe me when I testify this particular character never was a pup – he was a boy dog from the very start. His Monday email was, as always, so funny you tend to fall from your chair but when he explained that he needed a big favor, his request didn’t turn out to be funny at all.
I’m not so crazy I’ll ever equate a sex-trafficking victim with a girl basketball player who has just been suspended for her senior season. But I fiercely believe right-and-wrong doesn’t come in sizes and, while goodness has finally triumphed for Cyntoia Brown, she and Maori Davenport of Troy, Ala., are as different as night and day. Only their tears are similar and Maori’s pain persists because she’s completely without blemish.
Maori has always been a star. Her parents raised her to be an All-American even if she never touched a basketball. Everyone in Troy admires her and, this summer, after she led the USA 18-Unders to the gold medal in Mexico, she was the toast of town. Then there was a clerical error by USA Basketball. The NCAA allows USA Basketball, as well as other amateur teams, to pay a pittance to players who are on national teams that go out of the country.
On this summer’s USA team, the best high school players in the United States were assembled and, among them, were three juniors, including Maori Davenport. Maori – did I mention she is six feet-four inches tall? – led the USA team to the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in August. She had more rebounds and blocked shots than any other girl in the championship game.
Soon after the team disbanded, and the players returned to their colleges and high schools, a stipend check of $857.20, was inadvertently mailed to every player. But somebody at USA Basketball failed to call the high schools to see if their state associations allowed payment, and would those high school governing bodies object to a practice already fully approved by the NCAA?
When the error was realized, Maori as well as the underclassmen in Illinois and Indiana, immediately returned every cent. But when the check first arrived, Maori had no idea there was anything afoot so she endorsed the USA check, put it in her bank account, and never touched the money itself before rushing it back to red-faced USA Basketball officials.
The USA office immediately notified the high school associations – everybody eager to do the right thing – except for one guy. Steve Savarese, the Executive Director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, ruled that when Maori Davenport endorsed the check, she accepted payment, and that he doesn’t give a rip every penny was returned, she’ll not play for Charles Henderson High School … well, ever again.
As the story of such a cold injustice has rocked the sports work, Steve Savarese is getting his just due from every corner. The Alabama media is eating him alive, ESPN is having a feast with all the trimmings, and Savarese – his face on network TV and countless websites, is whining worse than a hit dog hollers. He is scheduled to be inducted in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame this April and that sound you just heard was ticket sales falling from the window.
Now, take away the fact sports organizations like the NBA and the NCAA can’t believe what Savarese has done, that Maori has been assured her scholarship offer from Rutgers is still quite valid and the city of Troy is absolutely indignant, it comes down to one thing:
Steve Savarese did not do the right thing.
The AHSAA Board of Control president Johnny Hardin, doesn’t buy that. He believes Savarese did his job. In a statement yesterday he claimed, “If exceptions are made, there would no longer be a need for an Amateur Rule.
“The Rules are applied equally to ALL athletes. Furthermore, most eligibility violations are the result of adults failing to follow the rules. Here, the student’s mother as a certified AHSAA Coach should know the rules; the School’s Principal should know the rules, the Head Basketball Coach, as not only a Coach but also as a former Central Board member, should know the rules.”
But the AHSAA uppity-ups have no clue how life’s rules really work. Every great leader has the ability to do the right thing. That is what great men do with total acceptance in the United States. This is a huge exception because it affects a completely innocent child. The clemency Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam exercised earlier on Monday began when Cyntoia Brown was Maori Davenport’s age.
The right thing overrides an acknowledged rule every time because no rule can ever be one-size-fits-all. Had Savarese the elements of sportsmanship, honesty, integrity and forgiveness in mind, he wouldn’t have allowed an innocent clerical error to be replaced with a nation of scorn.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas talked to Savarese and quoted him as saying, “My charge is to uphold the rules. What if I said 'no'? What if I let her play? If I make an exception to one rule, it opens up a Pandora's box on all of our rules. How could I enforce any rule? If I made an exception here, I would be arbitrary and capricious."
Please. There are exceptions to every rule and Savarese should know the difference between right and wrong. That’s the right way to uphold every rule. Do what’s right and the rule still stands. Do what’s right and no one complains. Do what’s right and stand by your decision like a man.
Jay Bilas had an even better line. “One Saturday afternoon, I just happened to be in Tuscaloosa for a game. At halftime, a woman approached me and said she was a teacher at Maori Davenport's school. She said she was horrified by the AHSAA decision, and that Davenport should be allowed to play again.
“She said that Maori is everything you want a student, an athlete and a role model to be,” the teacher told Jay. “She is from a great family and has brought nothing but honor to her school and her state.”
Then that teacher taught all of us … Savarese, the Davenport family, my “dirt dog” buddy … every one who is mortified and ashamed for Maori who has not done one thing wrong. The teacher closed by saying, "We are supposed to be here for the student. They are not here for us."
Brother, that’s really the right thing.