A conversation overheard on an Aug. 7 commuter flight from Chicago to Memphis, Tenn., has prompted attorneys representing UCLA basketball player Shabazz Muhammad to call for the NCAA to drop its investigation and declare him eligible.
The conversation came to light in an email from an attorney who said she was seated behind a man who was speaking loudly about the work of his girlfriend, an "attorney with the NCAA."
The girlfriend, whom he identified as "Abigail," was investigating Muhammad. The man made it clear that the NCAA would find Muhammad ineligible and not allow him to play this season, the email said. Abigail Grantstein, an assistant director of enforcement, is the NCAA's lead investigator on the Muhammad case.
The attorney, who confirmed her story in a telephone interview with The Times on Wednesday, said in her email that she was concerned with the lack of confidentiality and "the cavalier discussion of this young man's future being tossed about for everyone to hear."
The email was sent to Dennis Thomas, a former chairman of the NCAA's infractions committee. The attorney said she also sent a copy to UCLA and to attorney Robert Orr after learning that he was Muhammad's personal attorney. The Times also obtained a copy of the email.
Orr and attorney Bill Trosch, who is representing the Muhammad family, said this revelation was reason enough for the NCAA to declare Muhammad eligible immediately. The NCAA announced last Friday that the 6-foot-6 swingman was ineligible for violating its amateurism rules.
"This puts a far brighter light on the failings of the NCAA process, and it calls into question the impartiality of the decision," Orr said. "They have prolonged this investigation, trying extraordinarily hard to find some basis to rule Shabazz ineligible for whatever reason, and I don't know what that reason is."
The NCAA had not seen the email and did not know it existed until it was brought to the organization's attention Wednesday, spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said. "While we cannot comment on specifics, we expect our staff to protect the integrity of the process and any credible claims to the contrary are taken seriously," the NCAA said in a statement.
Osburn would not confirm nor deny whether the NCAA was investigating the matter.
The timing of the incident is key, according to Muhammad's representatives. The flight was only eight days after NCAA investigators say they first requested documents from Muhammad's family. The first installment of what was thousands of pages of documentation was not delivered until Sept. 25, and Muhammad's parents, Ron Holmes and Faye Muhammad, were not formally interviewed until Nov. 1 and 2.
"This confirms our greatest fears, that this case was decided long before the facts were gathered," Trosch said. "This taints the whole process, and I think Shabazz should be able to play immediately."
The attorney signed her name to the email but requested anonymity from The Times to avoid an onslaught of media attention. Her email to Thomas was dated two days after the flight.
In her email, she explained that she did "not follow college sports regularly and had to ask if Muhammad played football or basketball."
"I do not have any interest in this matter," she wrote.
A spokeswoman in Thomas' office he is commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference referred an inquiry to Osburn of the NCAA.
In a telephone interview, the attorney expanded on what she heard: "He was insistent that, 'My girlfriend is investigating him and he's dirty' and 'I can guarantee you that he's not going to play.'
"He talked specifically about taking money. That's what he kept saying: 'Abby knows it' and 'They're dirty and they were taking money and she's going to get them.'
"I was more offended in the delight he seemed to take in something that was very serious and could ruin this man's life, which is the reason that this stuck with me."
The attorney said the man referred to his girlfriend by name, mentioned a connection she had to Kansas and said she was a former college athlete. Abigail Grantstein was a member of Ohio State's swimming and diving team and attended law school at Kansas, according to her biography on LinkedIn.com.
In its ruling against Muhammad, the NCAA said that in addition to other "pending issues," he accepted airfare and lodging for three unofficial recruiting visits. The visits were to Duke and North Carolina and were paid for by financial advisor Benjamin Lincoln.
The Muhammad family has said Lincoln is a longtime family friend whose assistance should be allowed under NCAA rules.
UCLA on Wednesday appealed the NCAA's decision. The case is expected to be heard by an appeals committee on Friday.
If the committee sides with UCLA, Muhammad would probably become eligible immediately. If the committee denies the appeal, Muhammad would have to go through a reinstatement process to regain his eligibility.
By Baxter Holmes