Lucky timing and a prompt response by the University of Maryland to allegations that one of its coaches paid money to a prospective football player might have spared the school and the player serious consequences, experts say.
NCAA rules forbid anyone connected with an athletic program from luring a prospect with cash. A Maryland assistant football coach, Rod Sharpless, allegedly gave Gilman School star Victor Abiamiri payments totaling about $335.
The mother of the Baltimore high school player gave the money back to Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen and athletic director Deborah Yow 10 days before the day on which athletes are first permitted to declare their collegiate intentions, according to sources familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Abiamiri, 17, signed Wednesday to play for the University of Notre Dame.
Had the matter come to light later - after he signed with Maryland, something the sources said he had intended to do - the repercussions would have been much greater.
"They are much better off not having signed him," said Lynn Lashbrook, an NCAA compliance consultant with Sports-Management.com and a former assistant athletic director at the University of Missouri.
The NCAA sorts infractions into two categories, major and secondary. The university believes this will be viewed as a minor, or secondary, violation. Whether the NCAA will see it that way depends on various factors. One is whether the infraction was intended to or did give the Terrapins a significant recruiting advantage.
Had Abiamiri - one of the country's most sought-after football players - picked Maryland, it could be interpreted as a competitive advantage. It also could have left the school with a scholarship athlete the NCAA would have declared ineligible to play because he had been improperly recruited.
"The first thing you want to do is to avoid any advantage. It would have been a much more serious outcome had he signed," Lashbrook said.
A member of Gilman's coaching staff notified Friedgen on Jan. 24 that Sharpless had given Abiamiri money shortly before Christmas so the youngster could buy a video game console, the sources said. Abiamiri never bought the $200 device, an Xbox that plays games that cost about $50 each, but kept the money for about a month, the sources said.
On Jan. 26, his mother went to College Park to return the money.
Sharpless, who has resigned, has not responded to requests for comment. Abiamiri and his family have deferred to their attorney. Maryland and Gilman officials also declined to comment.
Yow and her staff spent a few days assessing the situation and conferring with attorneys, sources said. Abiamiri, an "A" student with solid admission test scores, already had been accepted into Maryland's honors business program and was looking forward to joining two older brothers on the football team, according to sources close to him.
Maryland officials told Abiamiri that they were notifying the NCAA of the infraction, which they hoped would be categorized as secondary and not preclude him from playing for the Terps. The university also launched an investigation, bringing in a Kansas law firm that specializes in such probes.
The attorneys came to town on Jan. 29, and interviewed Abiamiri, his parents and members of the Gilman coaching staff, the sources said. Sharpless was interviewed later, they said.
On Feb. 3, Friedgen notified Abiamiri that, based on legal advice, the school could not sign him, sources said. The NCAA bylaws say a school "shall not enter a student-athlete ... in any intercollegiate competition if it is acknowledged by the institution or established through the Association's enforcement procedures" that recruiting rules were violated.
Friedgen said the incident is an isolated infraction and a "terrible mistake" by the former coach. The university is hoping the fact that it reported the case to the NCAA, forfeited the player and persuaded the coach to quit will spare it any penalties.
Benjamin A. Leonard, a specialist in NCAA compliance with the Atlanta law firm Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers, said that might happen. But cash payments also could be classified as a "major violation," he said.
If other athletes are discovered to have been improperly recruited, or if it is proved that Friedgen knew of or authorized the payments, or there is a pattern of infractions, the school could be penalized. "The ramifications could be severe," such as being barred from postseason play, Leonard said.
With that in mind, rival recruiters swooped in on several Maryland prospects last week, warning them that the Terps might be penalized and unsuccessfully encouraging them to switch their college allegiance.
As for Abiamiri, he most likely will be spared any punishment despite having taken the money. Typically, the adults in these situations are held to a higher standard, Leonard said. "I think the burden is really on the coaches to stay out of trouble and that guy should have known better," he said.
Steve Mallonee, the NCAA's Division I associate chief of staff, declined to comment specifically on the Abiamiri case. But yesterday he said the rules on eligibility are written to encourage students to come forward with information about recruiting infractions.
"If the violations are strictly recruiting violations, then that only impacts on your eligibility to play for that institution and doesn't follow you to another institution," he said. Infractions of other rules, such as those designed to assure only amateurs play college sports, could result in a loss of eligibility to play anywhere.
Abiamiri informed Notre Dame about the incident, and the South Bend, Ind., university decided the risks were low, according to one source.
Yesterday, Notre Dame compliance director Mike Karwoski said, "Based on what has been reported and the type of violation, it doesn't appear that it would follow him to another school."
Abiamiri's attorney, David Irwin, said he believes the only punishment for the youth will be his inability to attend and play for Maryland.
Sun staff writer Christian Ewell contributed to this article.