(Memphis) A Memphis lawyer, who barely follows college sports, unwittingly found herself in the midst of a basketball controversy, after she reported a conversation she overheard on a plane in August.
Making her identity public for the first time, Florence Johnson Raines talked to News Channel 3 Monday about what she heard, and why the conversation suggested the NCAA may have pre-judged a case before the investigation was complete.
On a commuter flight from Chicago to Memphis, Raines overheard a man talking to another passenger in the row in front of her.
In an e-mail she later wrote to a former NCAA commissioner, she said described “a young man discussing very loudly that he was dating ‘an attorney with the NCAA’ and she was investigating Shabazz Muhammad.”
Muhammad was under investigation for allegedly accepting money to take unofficial recruiting trips to Duke and Carolina, before he ultimately chose UCLA.
Muhammad was the top recruit in the nation last year, and at one time considered the University of Memphis, when he was narrowing down his list.
After an appeals process, Muhammad was able to play Monday night in his first game of the season against Georgetown.
Raines said she didn’t know who Muhammad was, nor what sport he played.
She had to later ask colleagues, “Do you know anything about this guy, Muhammad? And they said, ‘yeah, he plays basketball.’ And I said, ‘no, I think he plays football’. And they had to tell me no, he played basketball.”
But as a lawyer, she knew the conversation on the plane involved issues that should have been kept confidential, if an investigation was taking place.
“He took great pains to say that his girlfriend Abby – he referred to her as Abby – was investigating him. And she was convinced that he was dirty. And he kept using the phrase ‘dirty.’ And that he was not going to play his freshman year,” Raines said.
She said she was struck by his certainty in a case that was not complete.
“It was more so the tone and the attitude that seemed to take a little bit of delight in what I imagine for this player and this family was a long and horrible process,” she said.
The attorney for Muhammad's family, Bill Trosch, said they are extremely grateful for her decision to speak up.
"I was shocked. It doesn’t happen very often, that the right person with the right ethics is in the right place," Trosch said. "She turned the lights on. Without her, and her vigilance, it would have never been known. What was going on would have never been known."
Raines said she never got a response to her e-mail and didn’t hear anything about it until last week, when UCLA appealed Muhammad’s ineligibility.
The NCAA reportedly did not know the e-mail existed until last week.
On Friday, the NCAA reinstated Muhammad, allowing him to play after having sat out for three games. He is also required to pay $1,600 to charity, the same amount that they say he received in taking the trips to North Carolina.
In 2010, Muhammad also took an unofficial visit to Memphis, but the NCAA did not find any violation of rules in that case.
Raines said, "I certainly wish him luck, but against...the University of Memphis, I can’t wish him any luck if he plays the Tigers."