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Athletics: Raiders men’s basketball hit with postseason ban by NJCAA

The Central Lakes College men's basektball program has been hit with a postseason ban after the NJCAA deemed the Raiders played with an ineligible player for seven games.

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Central Lakes head coach Jim Russell coaches his team Wendesday, Jan. 5, 2022, at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The Central Lakes College men’s basketball program forfeited six wins and was banned from the 2021-22 postseason after the NJCAA ruled the Raiders played with an ineligible player for the first seven games of the season.

In a statement released Thursday, Jan. 6, CLC said the player in question was found ineligible after allegedly playing in a semi-professional game in February of 2021.

According to the statement, the player is prohibited from playing collegiate sports. The statement also stated “the CLC coaching staff had no knowledge that the player participated in a game that could be considered professional and that he did not receive money or compensation for the game and considered the game a scrimmage or “pickup” game.”

Raiders head coach and athletic director Jim Russell said he learned about the player playing in this game after Thanksgiving when a coach from another team sent him a picture via text.

Immediately, Russell went to NJCAA with the allegations and sat the player out to not risk any more forfeits.

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“I sat down with my eligibility person and we checked all the eligibility to see if he was OK and to us everything was fine,” Russell said. “There were 12 things you have to pass and he passed 11 and the 12th one we were unsure about, so we handed it to the NJCAA and then the NJCAA held on to it and then three weeks later they got back to us. We sent more information to be clear with them and then they sent a final statement about forfeiting games and a postseason ban.”

After learning of the NJCAA’s punishment, CLC appealed the decisions. After the appeal, the NJCAA upheld its rulings.

Russell said the team the player played for in February of 2021 did not have a semi-pro season due to COVID-19 and was playing fundraiser games at the Fiserv Forum the home of the Milwaukee Bucks.

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Russell was disappointed when he heard about the postseason ban and the player’s amateur status being taken away despite him not receiving money. Russell believes the NJCAA acted without full knowledge of the situation.

“The whole thing about losing your amateur status is that if you are not getting paid or under contract everyone understands that you still have your amateur status,” Russell said. “When we handed it in, we figured everything was fine because he didn’t sign a contract and didn’t get paid. The thing they said was that he played with pro players and the game was under a semi-pro league. Well, we found out that that league and that team didn’t have a season that year and they were just doing a fundraiser and inviting people to come play and play in the new Bucks arena, but (the NJCAA) is still under the assumption that he played in a pro league game.”

Russell is not convinced that it was a pro-league game.

“We found out it was a scrimmage. We found the roster and we found it wasn’t even on the league schedule because that year they did not have a season because of COVID,” Russell said. “So again, we thought everything was fine and we still think he is innocent. I think it comes down to defining what is right and wrong, and right now they have stuck with their ruling, but we are still trying to get answers from the NJCAA.”

The statement by CLC concluded by saying: “The CLC Athletic Program models best practices, leadership and success for coaches and students, on and off the field. CLC athletics is, and will remain, one of the finest programs in the state.”

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Russell said he is full of mixed emotions about the situation.

“As a coach at an NJCAA organization and as a two-year college the NJCAA always promotes opportunities,” Russell said. “So as a coach you are always in the leadership role and trying to give kids hope and when you feel like that hope is taken away — I can’t describe the emotion to you, but I needed to look in the mirror a bit because as a coach you want to be educated on how to teach kids and for that to happen without us knowing and we feel like he’s still innocent because he didn’t do anything wrong. As an athlete, you just want to make yourself better.

“We were shut down as a school, the gym was closed, classes were online, so he went home. If it was a regular school year he would not have been there and he was invited to play in this game and what kid wouldn’t want to play in the new Bucks arena and if you are an athlete you want to get better and he didn’t get paid. So he did nothing wrong.”

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Russell thinks the situation is bigger than just his player losing his eligibility and a postseason ban.

“How many kids have gotten hurt by this,” Russell said. “What’s the definition of a semi-pro? Now I think a semi-pro is more of a recreational league. No one is making any money. They are just having YMCA games.”

Russell recalled his head golf coaching days at CLC and his players could play in Pro-Am tournaments. As long as they didn’t receive payment or compensation they didn’t lose their amateur status.

After learning of the ruling by the NJCAA, Russell said there was a long team meeting in which the players expressed their support for each other.

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“It’s been very emotional,” Russell said. “We have communicated with them through this whole process. This team is a very special team. When we found out about the final say, we spent over an hour in a classroom and everyone just talked. They all have each other's backs and they want to make sure he stays in school and finishes school and he wants to support them during games and practices. They are very tight and will stick together. This team is going to continue to compete in practice and games and we pray and hope something comes out of it in the end.”

CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or conrad.engstrom@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_rad34.

Related Topics: BASKETBALLLOCAL SPORTS
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