LeBron James, the best high school basketball player in the country, has been declared ineligible for the rest of the season for accepting free merchandise from a clothing store.
The decision made yesterday by the Ohio High School Athletic Association followed a ruling earlier this week that cleared James for accepting a $50,000 sports utility vehicle as a gift from his mother, Gloria.
This time the OHSAA decided that James violated his amateur status because he accepted two "throwback" sports jerseys from Akron clothing store "Next Urban Gear and Music." The jerseys were modeled after ones worn by former Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers and former Washington Bullets center Wes Unseld and cost a combined $845.
The jerseys were given to James last Saturday, OHSAA commissioner Clair Muscaro said, in exchange for posing for pictures that were to be hung on the walls of the store.
Muscaro said accepting the jerseys was a violation of an OHSAA bylaw that states that a high school athlete forfeits his amateur status when he is found to be "capitalizing on athletic fame by receiving money or gifts of monetary value."
James, Muscaro said, is the first athlete he has declared ineligible in his 14 years as commissioner.
"In talking with the store's personnel, I was able to confirm that on Jan. 25 the merchant gave clothing directly to LeBron at no cost," Muscaro said. "This is a direct violation of the OHSAA bylaws on amateurism."
Gloria James said through attorney Fred Nance that the family is "deeply disappointed" and is evaluating its options. A source close to LeBron James told ESPN.com that James will appeal the decision.
Attorney Lee Plakas told the Akron Beacon Journal the OHSAA bylaw on which the association bases its opinion is "ambiguous, contradictory, ill-defined and nonsensical" and said he expects lawyers representing James to seek a temporary restraining order that would allow the Irish superstar to continue to play.
The OHSAA says that if a written appeal is made, it will be heard before a state panel Feb. 13. If James cannot play until the matter is resolved, he would miss at least three games.
The source also said James has made an offer to either return the two shirts or pay for them.
From the end of last season, when his team lost in a state championship game, James has said his top basketball priority is to win a state title with his fellow seniors, with whom he has been playing basketball since before their teen years.
James, a 6-foot-8 guard, has been expected to bypass college all along - an NCAA official said he might have jeopardized his eligibility there as well - and become the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft. His school, St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, is the nation's top-ranked high school team.
The action came as St. Vincent-St. Mary neared the end of its regular season; only six games remain before the school enters the Ohio state playoffs. St. Vincent-St. Mary won state titles when James was a freshman and a sophomore and reached the championship game last season.
Muscaro defended his decision to ban James. "I think this sends a message that we are all about fairness," he said.
The ruling capped a tumultuous season rife with complaints about the commercialization of James' final high school campaign. St. Vincent-St. Mary was criticized for moving home games to a college arena and making them available on pay-per-view, raising ticket prices and receiving guarantees as high as $15,000 for road games.
The jerseys were not the first apparel James has received for free; sneaker company Adidas has sponsored St. Mary-St. Vincent, giving it shoes and other apparel, since the beginning of James' sophomore year. The state's regulations consider such clothing to be school-issued.
James declined to comment when asked about the jerseys at an awards ceremony in Cleveland on Thursday night.
Michael Dobie is a staff writer for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.