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Monday December 4, 2000

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NCAA rules bothersome but necessary

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By Ryan Finley

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Two weeks ago, I was taking a test when the proctor noticed me staring straight ahead. To him, it looked like I was cheating. In reality, I wasn't.

UA junior forward Richard Jefferson was suspended by the NCAA this past weekend for accepting basketball and plane tickets from Bill Walton, one of the nation's best ambassadors to basketball.

To the NCAA, it looked like he was accepting improper gifts. In reality, he wasn't.

The NCAA - geniuses that they are - say that Jefferson violated an NCAA rule by allowing the elder Walton to pay for him to travel with his best friend, UA sophomore forward Luke Walton, to San Diego, Calif., for a Walton family function.

Was the rule that Jefferson broke stupid? Yes. Should the Wildcats scream to high heaven and talk about possibly bailing out of the NCAA? No.

All in all, the NCAA does an adequate job of keeping college athletes, specifically basketball and football players, from breaking major NCAA rules. Jefferson just happened to get caught up in one of the small, ticky-tack by-laws of an antiquated system built to prohibit agents and boosters from supporting athletes.

In theory, NCAA rules keep schools like USC and Notre Dame from buying national titles in every sport, every year. That's a good thing.

Jefferson is being picked on because he's one of the most visible players on one of the most visible teams in the nation. With the Los Angeles-area schools in the middle of a basketball drought, Arizona has become the most publicized - and criticized - team in the Pacific 10 Conference.

That said, there's no reason for the Wildcats to moan about minor NCAA violations, especially Jefferson's.

Jefferson probably should have shown more discretion in receiving the tickets, especially since he and Luke were put on national television during the NBA Finals. Bill Walton commands attention everywhere he goes, especially in the Los Angeles area, where he is not only a Clippers broadcaster but a local icon.

Sometimes, assumption of guilt is almost as bad as guilt itself.

As hard as I tried to argue that I wasn't cheating, the proctor didn't believe me. I looked like I could have been cheating and, in a weird way, it was almost as bad as cheating. It was unfair, but that's the way the world works.

As a high-profile athlete, Jefferson needs to make sure he doesn't look guilty to the NCAA. It comes with the territory.

To the NCAA, Jefferson's trip to the NBA Finals probably looked a little fishy. They didn't know that Jefferson and Walton are good friends and former roommates, heroes in a town where college basketball is tantamount to church on Sundays.

Jefferson claimed that he didn't know that he was breaking NCAA rules in accepting tickets from Walton. Let's leave it there and return to beating teams by 60 points, as the Jefferson-less Wildcats did Saturday against St. Mary's.

This year's UA team has had to endure too many distractions already.

Threatening to withdraw from the NCAA - as UA head coach Lute Olson did Saturday - will only draw added attention to a team that has endured plenty of scrutiny already.

Let this one go.