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Monday December 4, 2000

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Jefferson calls suspension part of 'witch-hunt'

Headline Photo

By Keith Carmona

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Olson suggests change in structure of the NCAA

UA men's basketball junior forward Richard Jefferson was suspended on Saturday for accepting personal gifts, causing him and head coach Lute Olson to lash out against the National Collegiate Athletics Association.

Jefferson was declared ineligible prior to the Wildcats' 101-41 victory against Saint Mary's (Calif.) for accepting an NBA Finals ticket and plane ticket for a flight to Tucson from teammate Luke Walton's father, former professional basketball player Bill Walton.

Jefferson was in San Diego, Calif., in June for Walton's brother's high school graduation party, and the elder Walton had purchased tickets to the basketball game for the Walton's family gardener.

The gardener turned down the tickets, and Bill Walton offered them to Luke and Jefferson.

Jefferson said it never occurred to him that he would be violating an NCAA standard.

"Neither Bill, Luke nor I had any notion there were problems with the issue," Jefferson said in a statement issued by the University of Arizona athletic department before the Saint Mary's game. "Luke and I have been friends since before our senior year in high school and have been roommates since our first week on campus."

An anonymous source tipped off Pacific 10 Conference officials, who forced the university to declare Jefferson ineligible for Saturday's game. UA officials said they plan to petition the NCAA today to restore Jefferson's eligibility.

Jefferson is the second Arizona player suspended by the NCAA this season. Senior center Loren Woods was handed a six-game suspension in November for accepting money from a personal friend.

Rocky LaRose, UA associate athletic director, said she expects the NCAA to reinstate Jefferson by the Wildcats' next game, a Dec. 9 matchup against Connecticut.

Woods' suspension also ends Saturday.

Jefferson maintains that he hasn't done anything wrong in accepting the elder Walton's generosity in inviting him to the graduation party.

"(Bill) was like, 'Richard, you are a part of the family, you are welcome to come out, and we'll purchase you a ticket,'" Jefferson said. "He purchased Luke's girlfriend a ticket and has purchased other people's tickets. The NCAA is making a big joke about this. For them to say that I have to sit out a game because he is my best friend is ridiculous."

Jefferson said he feels the NCAA is running its athletes out of the collegiate level.

"Why would someone want to stay in college?" he said. "You look at all this bullcrap going on, and why would someone want to stay in college...It's like there is a bunch of witch-hunts going on. I haven't done anything wrong."

While the suspension did take Jefferson by surprise, he said that he's just the latest in a long line of victims of the NCAA's inconsequential actions.

"There were a lot of players persecuted last year - Jamal Crawford (and) Erick Barkley ended up leaving early to go to the NBA because they were getting persecuted by the NCAA," Jefferson said. "The NCAA wants to make it so that players want to stay (in college). This all doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

Crawford, a former Michigan basketball player, left school for the NBA last season when the NCAA suspended him for living with a family friend.

Barkley, a former St. John's guard, was suspended for benefits from agents, which included cash, dates with models and financial dealings with rap stars.

Olson said that while Jefferson did break NCAA standards, this sort of suspension hurts the sport of college basketball more than it helps it.

"I am just extremely disappointed with the NCAA in regards to this," he said. "Yeah, there is a rule there, but you are talking about Rich and Luke, who are totally inseparable. Somewhere along the line, some common sense has to come into people's thinking,''

Olson added that situations like Jefferson's and Woods' make him question the effectiveness of the NCAA as a governing body.

''Maybe they should throw the book out and start over again and probably include as the number one item common sense.'' he said.

He also suggested that if the NCAA actions continue, Division I schools should consider forming their own organization.

''I know there's been a lot of concern by a lot of Division I schools about if it's time for Division I schools to form their own group and go from there,'' Olson said. ''I think situations like this one certainly make you wonder if what's being said isn't something to be considered.''

If something isn't done, Olson said that he is afraid that athletes will be intimidated by the thick NCAA rule book, causing high school athletes to become disinterested in playing collegiately.

"What I sort of wonder sometimes is if there's going to be some time where the athletes just say, 'Enough is enough,'" he said.

Olson said that while his program does all it can in warning its players and their parents about the regulations, small violations manage to slip through the cracks.

"There is no one that sends out more letters than (the UA) about all the rules and everything else," he said. "This isn't a case where schools can do anything. I can't do anything, nor can any other coaches, because then it becomes a vendetta.

"Bill Walton is not an agent, he is not looking for something out of this," Olson added. "I think common sense needs to be written into the guidelines. Dang, you see some of the things that are turned in and nothing happens with it. Something is haywire."