A W A K E N

Alabama officials are punishing a girls basketball player for no reason other than they can

We live in a highly partisan hellscape, but over the past week, one story has engendered an unparalleled level of unity: The abrupt decision of the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) to revoke 6’4″ basketball sensation Maori Davenport’s eligibility for her senior year.

You see, Davenport is a high school senior at Charles Henderson High School in Troy, Alabama. Last summer, she led USA Basketball to a gold medal in the Under-18 World Championships. After the tournament, USA Basketball accidentally sent her an $857 check, to reimburse her for expenses incurred on this trip. When USA Basketball realized it made a mistake — if players are still in high school, USAB is supposed to check with their states before sending the checks — it notified Davenport’s mother and the money was immediately sent back. But that just wasn’t good enough for the AHSAA. They suspended Davenport from playing in basketball games for the full year because she cashed the check in the first place — again, she quickly returned the money — and have upheld the decision through two formal appeals and a tsunami of public backlash.

It’s an unconscionable, unethical, and down-right unreasonable decision made by a group of sanctimonious suits who have put their own hunger for control in front of the wellbeing of the athletes they’re supposed to watch over. And now, time is running out for any justice to be served. Henderson only has five basketball games remaining this season.

On Thursday, Davenport’s parents filed a lawsuit against the AHSAA and its Executive Director, Steve Savarese, looking to obtain an injunction that would allow her back on the court, potentially as soon as Friday night’s game. The hope is that legal pressure will be able to accomplish what intense public pressure has not: allow Davenport to finish the season with her teammates. Over the past few days, NBA stars such as Chris Paul and DeMarcus Cousins, along with the entire WNBA, have spoken out on Davenport’s behalf. On Wednesday, the Alabama House Republican Caucus unanimously passed a resolution urging the Alabama High School Athletic Association to reinstate Davenport’s eligibility, and Billie Jean King called the ruling “maddening” and “nonsensical.” There’s probably not much that King and the Alabama House Republican Caucus agree on, but this issue is simply that cut-and-dry.

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Or, it is to everyone except for the AHSAA. Earlier this week, Savarese spoke with Jay Bilas of ESPN, and painted himself as the real hero in all of this, a man who stands up to the liars and cheaters of the world and enforces the rules at all cost.

“My charge is to uphold the rules. What if I said ‘no’? What if I let her play?,” Savarese said. “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.”

One problem: that’s a load of horseshit. What in the world is he talking about? Yes, Steve, if you let Davenport play, then you would have to let any other player who was accidentally paid a stipend for winning their country a gold medal — and returned said stipend when they were notified it was against the rules — play basketball. Absolutely. Considering such a scenario might come up, oh, maybe one more time in the next century, it’s easy to see why he’s afraid that making this one exception to the rule would unleash complete chaos.

Savarese’s logic is so, well, illogical that it’s hard not to wonder what else is behind the decision. Would this be happening if Davenport was a white athlete, for instance? What if she was a football player? Or if she had decided play college basketball at a local Alabama university, instead of committing to Rutgers in New Jersey? Would there have been more leniency then? There is no way of knowing for sure.

The only certainty is that this is a story about power and petulance. 

Often, when a scandalous story receives such national attention, as this one did this week, another side comes to light that quells the outrage a bit. The issue becomes a bit gray. Nuance is thrown into the mix. But in this case, every single detail revealed just makes the AHSAA look worse.

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In a statement earlier this week — which the AHSAA said would be its final one on the matter — AHSAA central board of control president Johnny Hardin said, “Neither USA Basketball, the student’s parents, the student’s coach, nor CHHS administration reported the student had received the check until three months later, (specifically 91 days).”

Hardin also said, ““It should be pointed out that a high school student from Illinois also received payment from USA Basketball. However, that student called her high school once she received the check and then returned the check to USA Basketball without cashing or depositing it.”

But both of those statements have been called misleading by the other parties involved. The reason that nobody reported the check to AHSAA until three months after it was cashed was because Davenport’s mom wasn’t notified until November 26 by USA Basketball that the check had been a mistake. According to Davenport’s school principal at Charles Henderson High School, Brock Kelley, Davenport’s mother notified the AHSAA on November 27 and returned the money on November 28.

And USA Basketball said that the high school student from Illinois did in fact cash the check from USA Basketball, but, like Davenport, once she realized the error, she repaid the money.

In other words, the AHSAA isn’t just preventing Davenport from playing her senior year, it’s out here lying about it in a futile attempt to justify its decision. Unfortunately for them, it’s unjustifiable.

Davenport, it must be said, is handling herself incredibly well. Yellowhammer News reported that earlier this week, she visited the Alabama state legislature and met with lawmakers, including Rep. Kyle South (R-Fayette), who has drafted a law that would provide state oversight to the AHSAA. This way, hopefully in the future, no other athlete has to go through what she’s experienced the last couple of months. She knows her time is running out, but wants to make things better for those who come after her.

But don’t let her maturity and poise distract you from her very understandable devastation. Even though she’s completely healthy and fit, she’s had to sit on the sidelines during her senior year. She’s missed the chance to contend for titles she’s likely dreamed of her entire life, such as McDonald’s All American, or Miss Basketball. All over a clerical error made by adults, and a punishment handed down by power-hungry imbeciles who care more about asserting their authority than actually taking care of the students and the sports they are tasked with protecting.

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“I don’t understand why it is so hard to change it,” Davenport told the Washington Post on 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.”

The Women’s Sports Foundation really did put it best this week. In a statement issued in support of Davenport, it pointed out that the actions of the AHSAA are the opposite of what should be expected of the gatekeepers of youth sports.

“Adults in the sports community should strive to remove barriers to access for youth rather than create them, with the ultimate goal of closing the participation gap and helping every girl realize her power through the benefits of sports and physical activity,” the WSF said.

Apparently, Savarese and the rest of the AHSAA missed that memo.

This post has been updated to include information about the Davenports’ lawsuit against the AHSAA. 

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