As years go, 2018 was a pretty good one for Alabama teen Maori Davenport. A junior at Charles Henderson High School, she helped her basketball team win a state championship. That summer, she was invited to play with USA Basketball and was one of three high schoolers to win gold while representing the US at the FIBA Americas U18 Tournament in Mexico City in August. In October, the No. 15 recruit in national rankings made a verbal commitment to play at Rutgers.
On the surface, everything was great.
But as we now understand, Davenport was fighting a different battle behind the scenes, a fight for her eligibility that proved futile when the state of Alabama’s athletic administrators denied her final appeal.
The circumstances behind the decision — the how and why of Davenport receiving and then later repaying stipend money from USA Basketball — is an all-time tale of bureaucratic obstinacy defeating common sense, of a senior high school season lost because the price for an admitted mistake by adults is being paid for by a child. The stalemate playing out in Alabama is one to boil your blood and break your heart, a reminder of what happens when those in power value service to their rules over servicing their constituents.
Maybe there’s part of you wondering why this matters, why the case of an Alabama basketball player is in the Boston Globe, why the outrage we all seem to quick and eager to rise to these days has landed on the relatively obscure case of Maori Davenport. Why? Because it is, in my opinion, outrageous. And I am not alone.
The story is picking up steam by the day, gathering more and more voices in support of the 18-year-old, the loudest among them Jay Bilas, the ESPN basketball analyst, lawyer, and frequent NCAA critic. It was Bilas’s advocacy that made me aware of what was happening, and with Davenport headed for college ball at my alma mater, I was immediately intrigued.
The more I read up on it, finding support from the likes of USA Basketball head coach Dawn Staley, WNBA leadership, its stars (Sue Bird), and NBA stars such as DeMarcus Cousins (an Alabama native) and Chris Paul, the more I was stunned at how inordinately harsh the punishment was for this supposed crime.
The issue in a nutshell: Davenport, along with all the players on Team USA, received a check for $857.20 last summer. For the college players on the roster, no problem, as NCAA rules allow replacement for such “lost wages.”
For the high schoolers, USA Basketball is supposed to clear the checks with individual state athletic agencies. It did not, and after realizing and admitting the mistake, it informed the players in question. In Davenport’s case, she had already deposited the check. Once notified, which was 91 days after the payment, her family immediately paid the amount back. They reported the mistake to the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
Now here’s where it gets messy.
No one is disputing that Davenport violated a rule; the AHSAA policy states, “A student cannot accept payment for loss of time or wages while participating in athletics as part of expenses.” And no one is disputing what punishment is written into that rule: “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.”
But take a breath and consider the circumstances. Consider the intent. Does the AHSAA really believe Davenport was motivated to become a professional athlete by representing her country? Does AHSAA executive director Steve Savarese, the man who imposed the punishment, truly believe the line between amateurism and professionalism is that easily drawn?
Come on; our sports world from the NCAA to the Olympics is littered with the ridiculousness of that concept, where paid professionals continue to make millions on the labor of the athletes who must remain amateurs.
But most of all, consider the young woman. I find it heartbreaking to imagine her losing out on her senior high school season, which anyone who played any level of high school sports can confirm is the best payoff for years of participation. That Davenport is among the nation’s best players, that she had an opportunity to help her team defend its state championship would seem to make this even more egregious.
But the magic of high school sports is about so much more than trophies and titles. It’s about fellowship and teamwork and shared achievement. It’s about belonging to something greater than yourself. It’s about learning to win and lose with equal grace.
And yes, it’s about following the rules. But Davenport wasn’t the one who broke them. And her grace in the face of this travesty has been one of its more inspiring outcomes. She told ESPN that as much as she wants to play this season, she has gone public to help prevent others from ever going through this.
Her future college coach, C. Vivian Stringer, urged the family to go public long before the recent final appeal, but she said they declined in favor of following proper channels. When the state board upheld Savarese’s ruling, as it continues to double down with ensuing statements blaming USA Basketball, Davenport’s parents, her coaches, and her high school administrators, and defending its decision for fear of opening a Pandora’s Box of rule breakers (because there are so many high school athletes across Alabama vying for positions with USA Basketball), Stringer let loose her anger.
“Maori hasn’t done a doggone thing except receive a doggone check from USA Basketball,” Stringer said. “It was grown-ups’ fault. And grown-ups did not lay claim to that.
“She’s a great kid. A great student. A great kid. She did try to do the right thing. And then the Alabama high school association? Are you kidding me? This girl was up for Player of the Year, All-American, and how could you do that? How could you do that?
“It hurts me to see a young person to get hurt like that and adults who are hiding behind a state rule.”
Maybe something will change. On Tuesday, the Alabama legislature held a hearing, hoping to put pressure on the AHSAA to reopen the case and reinstate Davenport in the meantime. But the AHSAA has shown zero inclination to hear the voices of outrage, choosing instead to dig in.
Meanwhile, Davenport sits on the bench, still with her teammates, but not on the court.
I call that outrageous.