Mississippi State enters the Women’s NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed, among the favorites to make a run to the Final Four. Junior center Chinwe Okorie is a big reason.
Okorie has started all 33 games for the 29-4 Bulldogs, averaging 7.8 points and 5.5 rebounds. She also gets it done off the court, an Academic All-SEC performer who speaks seven languages and is on course to graduate after three years with a degree in business administration.
Yet two years ago she was declared academically ineligible by the NCAA.
Okorie, a native of Nigeria, is just one example of a system for handling eligibility cases that many around the sport view as flawed at best, and, at worst, potentially biased against African student athletes.
FanRag Sports spent more than a year looking into various cases handled by the NCAA Eligibility Center involving men’s and women’s basketball players from Africa and found many coaches, players, educators and attorneys dismayed. An NCAA spokesperson declined comment on behalf of officials at the organization.
Okorie’s story is a common one. She came to the United States as a promising student and basketball player. As an honor student at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Massachusetts, she signed with Mississippi State, but was ruled ineligible and forced to sit out her freshman season.
One justification for the intense scrutiny on international players has been the presence of diploma mills, schools that exist simply to grant diplomas to athletes. Yet Okorie was the only Stoneleigh-Burnham student-athlete in the class of 2013 to even apply for the NCAA clearinghouse.
Administrators at her high school tried to communicate with the NCAA staffer handling the case in an attempt to clear up the issue, but messages to the NCAA went unreturned.
“She was so difficult to work with that at one point I actually contacted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria for help and they actually helped,” Lauren Cunnife, Okorie’s counselor at Stoneleigh-Burnham School said. “But this was the person I was supposedly working with from the NCAA and I could get no response.”
A common issue seems to be obtaining and verifying transcripts. In many cases, players who excelled academically for multiple years in the United States were tripped up when the NCAA required documentation going back as far as middle school. Obtaining official copies of those documents can often be extremely difficult.
At UC Irvine, men’s head coach Russell Turner traveled to Senegal to collect the documents needed to ensure his former player Mamadou Ndiaye, who speaks five languages, would be eligible to play at the school.
“I think they look specifically at the African cases with more skepticism,” Turner said. “Some of that is because of what the NCAA requires. The NCAA requires notarized transcripts, which in many African communities are virtually impossible to obtain. Mamadou came from Senegal and we were able to get him eligible. What they are requiring for some of these kids to be eligible simply doesn’t exist. In my case, I actually had to go to Senegal and take the records they had and put them in a form that was acceptable to the NCAA. It was a big hassle and in the end it worked out.”
Sarah Imovbioh, who now plays professionally in Spain, was originally declared ineligible after graduating from St. Anne’s-Belfield in Virginia with the required GPA and test scores. The NCAA said there was a gap in her transcript in Nigeria due to a teacher’s strike that shut down schools for a semester.
Imovbioh played three years at Virginia before earning a degree and transferring to South Carolina. After sitting out her first season, she was eventually granted a fourth year of eligibility on appeal, but said the entire ordeal was trying.
“It was definitely tough to sit out my first year,” Imovbioh said. “Because I thought (Virginia) could have used me well that year. It was tough because coming out of high school, I was extremely excited to compete immediately when I got to UVA. It was tough because I actually passed the NCAA clearinghouse and they assured me I was good to go, only to find out late that I would not be able to compete due to the gap in the transcript. If I had known that there was an issue when going through the clearing house maybe I would have explained my situation to them or got them to reach my school in Nigeria for them to get an explanation for that gap.”
Some schools have shown an inclination to go to great lengths to secure eligibility for high-profile men’s players. Last season former Kansas forward and current New Orleans Pelican rookie Cheick Diallo and Central Florida center Tacko Fall each had their eligibility questioned by the NCAA, but were eventually ruled eligible after legal representation was hired.
Kansas reportedly spent more than $100,000 working to clear Diallo while coaches and administrators at his high school, Our Savior New American in New York, said they didn’t hear from the NCAA while the investigation into Diallo and others at the school was ongoing.
At Virginia, four years after Imovbioh was ruled ineligible as a freshman, men’s basketball player Mamadi Diakite from Guinea sat out last season as a redshirt while the school worked to clear up his eligibility issues. Diakite served a one-game suspension to start this season. According to sources at Virginia and Diakite’s high school, the Blue Ridge School, the NCAA also had questions about transcripts from his native Guinea.
Diakite has been a key reserve for the Cavaliers since serving his suspension and has three more years of eligibility remaining, but not every case has worked out as well for players in similar positions.
Therence Mayimba, a native of Gabon, was once a George Mason signee who spent the 2015-’16 season at Northwest Florida State junior college and has been ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA despite graduating from high school in Maryland as an honor roll student with passing test scores.
“It’s not a perceived problem or an imagined problem,” said former George Mason coach Paul Hewitt. “It’s absolutely an issue of going after African students.”
Many people who worked to try to get Mayimba eligible said it was more than simple logistics that kept him off the court at George Mason, some wondering aloud if bias was involved.
“I’ve consistently complained about this issue since 2005 or 2006,” Don Jackson, an attorney who has represented athletes such as Diallo, said. “These intensive academic reviews and amateurism investigations over the past 10 or 11 years have almost exclusively focused on African American and international athletes.”
In Mayimba’s case, George Mason didn’t initially hire a lawyer to represent him even though Hewitt said schools in the Virginia state system have money in the budget set aside to hire attorneys for NCAA issues. Hewitt, who recruited Mayimba, was eventually fired by George Mason and Mayimba wound up at Northwest Florida after being ruled ineligible for NCAA Division I competition.
But according to multiple sources involved with Mayimba’s case, that should have never happened. Despite the fact Mayimba had excellent grades in three years at both Montrose Christian and St. James schools in Maryland — information backed up by documents obtained by FanRag Sports — the NCAA opened an investigation into his academic eligibility.
“I was shocked,” Mayimba said. “Because I knew I was a good student. It all seemed like it was based on things that didn’t have anything to do with basketball or with school.”
The issue centered on obtaining documents from Gabon, where the nation was undergoing civil unrest and transition from handwritten to electronic records. Members of the GMU staff worked with the Gabonese embassy in Washington D.C. to verify his academic standing in that country, but were then accused of academic fraud involving the handling of those documents. After GMU was cleared of that, the investigation continued.
“What they do is they cherry pick, they keep moving the target,” Hewitt said. “Then they tried to make it into an amateurism case and when that didn’t go anywhere they turned it into his age.”
In the minds of Mayimba and his supporters, the NCAA continually moved the goalposts for eligibility. Once the academic issues were resolved, the eligibility center began investigating his amateur status due to involvement with club teams in Africa.
According to former Mason employees, once the school was able to establish amateurism, the NCAA moved on to an issue with Mayimba’s age. His official documents, including his birth certificate and passport, indicated he was 18 years old and therefore eligible to play at George Mason. However, Hewitt and Mayimba said the player signed up for an online dating site when Mayimba was 16. To be accepted for the service, Mayimba stated he was 18 at the time, which the NCAA accepted as proof Mayimba was actually 20 when he intended to enroll at George Mason.
“Literally the smoking gun, if you will, was the dating website,” Hewitt said. “Therence had logged into that and said he was 18 years old when he was actually 16 years old. All his official documentation was verified by all the necessary agencies, yet the NCAA rejects it.”
Though most people associated with athletic departments at both the college and high school level hesitate to publicly criticize the NCAA for fear of retribution in the form of suspensions and further investigations, many coaches and administrators have privately expressed their frustration with the NCAA Eligibility Center.
The center, formerly known as the NCAA Clearinghouse, is the branch of the NCAA charged with determining the initial eligibility of prospective student athletes. Many have suggested there may be problems with the overarching attitude toward certain demographic groups.
One coach, who requested anonymity, said an NCAA staffer had been told by his bosses, “You can’t trust anything coming out of Africa.” Multiple sources expressed dismay at social media posts by NCAA staffers who investigate international student athletes. One particular Twitter post appeared to make light of the Ebola crises in Africa. Phone messages and emails to Elizabeth Sellers, who heads that department and handled the Mayimba and Okorie cases, went unreturned.
Beyond that, multiple sources from high schools and colleges involved in investigations have complained to FanRag Sports there was often little to no cooperation from NCAA Eligibility Center employees.
A source from Blue Ridge School, which frequently has international student athletes, said it’s often difficult to establish communication with the eligibility center. Phil Stinnie, who coached Imovbioh at St. Anne’s Belfield, said last year he had no idea who at the NCAA had investigated her case before she was made ineligible.
Some believe the NCAA simply hopes that delaying cases will avoid conflict and the players in question will simply agree to sit out, but that may be changing. The Diallo and Fall cases showed schools that challenging with the help of legal representation can speed up the process. Yet that may not always be a viable option.
“The NCAA knows that it breaks you, they know $750 an hour is the rate for some of the lawyers in some of these cases,” Hewitt said. “They know these kids can’t afford that. That’s the corrupt part of this thing. The NCAA can go after a kid and get no pushback.
“It’s no surprise that Tacko Fall is eligible, that Cheick Diallo is eligible, because the schools made a public issue of it. Once it becomes public and bubbles up to (NCAA President) Mark Emmert’s office he says ‘come on guys, knock off the BS.’ I don’t think Emmert knows what’s going on in the eligibility center. I think he’s doing his own thing and enjoying life going to the bowl games and the NCAA Tournament. But there are bad people there, they are really bad people.”