Let Maori Play
By Jack O'Connor
On Friday night, January 11th, 2019, Maori Davenport took the court for Charles Henderson High School. That night, in Troy, Alabama, the young forward scored 25 points in blowout victory . On the surface this would seem to be business as usual for the state champion, Rutgers University commit, and 15th ranked high school player in the country. But for those who knew Maori’s story, this game was far more meaningful.
Last summer, Maori Davenport, like other high school players of her caliber, was selected to represent her country and compete in the FIBA Under-18 Women’s Americas Championship in Mexico. She performed incredibly well and helped team USA bring home a gold medal. What should have been a joyous occasion quickly soured as the ramifications of that trip proved to be disastrous. USA Basketball, in compliance with NCAA regulations, provides players with a small stipend for the time they spend competing for their country. They assure the athletes that they reach out to every state to comply with state athletic association regulations. Maori was issued a check in the amount of $857.20 which her parents cashed. In November, just before the start of her final high school season, the Davenport family was alerted by USA Basketball that an error was made, and the stipend was not in accordance with the Alabama High School Athletic Association bylaws. Maori’s parents immediately returned the money in full and her high school, and the AHSAA, were notified of the error. These steps were taken with the hope that the governing bodies would display some level of leniency and understanding. In short, they did not.
The executive director of the AHSAA, Steve Savarese, who correctly claims to be the “absolute authority” with sole discretion on these matters, handed down a one-year suspension on Maori for violating Rule 1, Section 8 of the AHSAA bylaws . This rule states that, “A student who accepts material or financial inducement from any source is ineligible” . Savarese is a key figure in this saga. He is a lifelong coach and was an educator for 44 years. While speaking with Jay Bilas of ESPN, Savarese callously remarked, “The lesson to be learned here is for the adults that have the responsibility to inform the student-athlete of the rules. It is the responsibility of other parties, school officials, USA Basketball who only had to make a phone call, and her mom who is an assistant coach. She should know better” . What Savarese fails to recognize is that USA Basketball has publicly accepted complete blame for what they have called a clerical oversight. The Davenport family trusted the information they were given and took every step to reconcile the mistake without any cover-up. And despite all of that, Savarese chose to make Maori pay the ultimate price for any athlete. This is the latest example of the cold, hypocritical decisions made by governing bodies that wield immense power over student-athletes at every level. Now Maori’s fight has been taken off the court and into the courtroom.
At two separate occasions, Maori’s high school appealed the AHSAA’s decision through the Association’s internal appeals process. Both appeals were denied. Since those avenues were exhausted, Maori’s parents have filed a lawsuit in Pike County, AL against AHSAA. The lawsuit alleges the AHSAA’s decision-making process that led to the one-year suspension was arbitrary, based on collusion and the product of fraud . This rendered the first victory for Maori since her gold medal effort in Mexico. Circuit Judge Henry Reagan granted the Davenports a temporary restraining order which lifts the current sanction and allows Maori to return to basketball, at least until she has had her day in court . This is why that game on January 11th was so meaningful for Maori, her family, her school and her teammates.
This battle is far from over, Judge Reagan has scheduled a trial for February 1st. It will assuredly be an uphill battle to convince an Alabama court to rule against the AHSAA. Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated explains that, “Alabama courts have reviewed AHSAA’s decisions with substantial deference and have consistently rejected players’ appeals” . For this reason, it is incumbent upon Steve Savarese to use the discretion he possesses to stop fighting. Interpreting this rule so narrowly, and assigning a strict liability punishment, ignores the facts behind the violation. Additionally, it unfairly robs an innocent student of her senior season because of mistakes made by the adults in her life. This case is so unique that, should Savarese reverse his decision, the odds of problematic precedent is slim. Furthermore, it is clear that those involved did everything to be transparent. One more cloud that hangs over the future proceedings is Rule VI, Section 10 of the AHSAA bylaws that could result in all the games Maori has played in this season to be vacated if she is unsuccessful in her lawsuit . This would have a detrimental effect on her team’s season. Savarese could prevent all of this by making the most reasonable choice to relinquish.
Thankfully this violation will only disrupt Maori’s senior high school season. NCAA regulations permit high school students to accept stipends from USA Basketball. Regardless of outcome, she will be competing for Rutgers next fall. Even so, that does not mean Maori will go unharmed. She has already missed 16 games, was left off the roster for the McDonald’s All-American game, and her school’s season hangs in the balance. She should be permitted to finish her season with her team and make a run at one more state championship. Let Maori play.
References:  Maine, Darcy. “Maori davenport plays for Charles Henderson after motion granted.” ESPN.com, 11 Jan. 2019, http://www.espn.com/espnw/sports/article/25736695/maori-davenport-set-play-charles-henderson-friday.  Bilas, Jay. “The maddening case of Maori Davenport and Steve Savarese.” ESPN.com, 7 Jan. 2019, http://www.espn.com/espnw/sports/article/25698559/the-maddening-case-maori-davenport-steve-savarese.  McCann, Michael. “Maori Davenport’s eligibility could become legal controversy.” SI.com, 10 Jan. 2019, https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2019/01/10/maori-davenport-usa-basketball-legal-controversy.  Bilas, Jay. “The maddening case of Maori Davenport and Steve Savarese.” ESPN.com, 7 Jan. 2019, http://www.espn.com/espnw/sports/article/25698559/the-maddening-case-maori-davenport-steve-savarese.  McCann, Michael. “Maori Devenport eligibility case still far from settled.” SI.com, 11 Jan. 2019, https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2019/01/11/maori-davenport-eligibility-high-school-alabama-lawsuit-analysis.  Id.  McCann, Michael. “Maori Davenport’s eligibility could become legal controversy.” SI.com, 10 Jan. 2019, https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2019/01/10/maori-davenport-usa-basketball-legal-controversy.  McCann, Michael. “Maori Devenport eligibility case still far from settled.” SI.com, 11 Jan. 2019, https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2019/01/11/maori-davenport-eligibility-high-school-alabama-lawsuit-analysis.
*Jack O'Connor is a first year student at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law and a staff writer for the Sports Law Society Blog.