8:13PM EST November 13. 2012 - GAINESVILLE,Fla. -- The case played out like many other NCAA violations.
College sports' governing body found a prominent football player at aSoutheastern Conference school had accepted impermissible benefits. He wassuspended and forced to repay the money. What came next, though, wasunprecedented and could be a loophole used in the future to provide benefits forelite athletes.
After his suspension, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd was adopted, atage 20, by the man who provided those benefits.
Floyd, a junior for the seventh-ranked Gators and a possible first-round pickin the NFL draft, now receives far more from his adoptive father, Kevin Lahn,than he was punished for taking last year. Under NCAA rules, there are virtuallyno limits to what a parent can provide to an athlete but a slew of restrictionson what a player can receive from anyone else.
"(The adoption) was not something we planned, but it's been a natural fit,"Lahn said in an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports.
Floyd declined comment through a Florida spokesman. But Lahn, who wasdissociated from his alma mater, South Carolina, by the school in September 2011as part of a major NCAA infractions case, says the adoption was a reflection ofthe feelings he and his wife, Tiffany, have for Floyd, and not a reaction to theNCAA suspension.
"My wife and I love Sharrif and he feels the same way about us," Lahnsays.
Says Steve Gordon, a close friend of Floyd and Lahn: "There was no ulteriormotive on either part. It was just that they bonded really well. (Adoption is) ahuge load. You can't do it for an ulterior motive."
But Gordon also acknowledges Lahn's frustration over Floyd being suspended."(Lahn) doesn't like to be told no, and it isn't that he's doing anythingwrong," Gordon says. "He's doing what's in the best interest of that kid."
Floyd's case has some similarities to that of former Mississippi offensivelineman Michael Oher, whose story was told in Michael Lewis' book The Blind Sideand movie of the same name. The Memphis native became an All-American at thealma mater of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, a couple who took in Oher, enrolled himin a private school that their biological children attended and helped him toget eligible for college.
The NCAA reviewed his case because the Tuohys are Mississippi boosters andfound no violations. The Tuohys later adopted Oher, a 2009 first-round draftpick by the Baltimore Ravens.
That the NCAA questioned Oher about his situation illustrates the loophole inFloyd's case. While NCAA rules experts caution that it's unlikely for thissituation to become a widespread problem because of the commitment adoptionrequires, it does leave the association vulnerable to unscrupulous boosters,agents or other third parties who could skirt the rules.
John Infante, a former assistant compliance director at Colorado State andLoyola Marymount and author of the Bylaw Blog, says the NCAA likely wouldn'twant to get involved in assessing the legitimacy of adoptions and trying todetermine whether they have been done to formalize an existing relationship orto find a way around the rules to provide benefits.
"It's between a rock and a hard place, because, on one hand, you let this go,if you're saying this is the one thing we're not going to touch - parents andlegal guardians - well then you've established a way around the rules where AAUcoaches, runners, agents, boosters just adopt kids and start providing forthem," he says. "You can basically do whatever you want."
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn says examinations are made on a case-by-casebasis. "If a student-athlete is adopted, from that point forward the individualwould be treated as any other parent," Osburn said in an e-mail.
Becoming the Lahns' son meant Floyd, who grew up in a broken and poor family,would be provided for better than he had been at any other time in his life.
Lahn, a vice president of a commercial real estate company, leased anapartment and a vehicle - a 2012 Ford Explorer XLT - for Floyd shortly after theadoption in December, according to Lahn and documents obtained by USA TODAYSports. The couple gave Floyd a credit card, which he uses mostly for food, andtook him on a trip to Disney World, Gordon says.
Floyd has a room in the Lahns' 6,500-square-foot home on a golf course inKennett Square, Pa., 35 miles west of Philadelphia. And for his 21st birthday inMay, he met them in Miami for a trip that coincided with the couple's fifthwedding anniversary, Lahn says. That included a stay at the Mandarin Oriental, aluxury hotel, and a trip on the Jody Lee, a chartered, $3 million, 80-footyacht, according to photos and updates on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook byTiffany Lahn and others.
Posts to social media from a current teammate and former teammate of Floydshow he was joined by three other football players. Florida defensive linemenRonald Powell and Dominique Easley were photographed with Western Kentuckysafety Jonathan Dowling and Floyd in front of the yacht. Easley posted fivephotos to Instagram and Twitter along with photos of Floyd and Dowling in theMandarin Oriental. Dowling also tweeted about the trip.
Dowling was kicked off the team at Florida for a violation of team rules inNovember 2010, when he was a freshman. He has remained friends with Floyd andEasley, who he says were his roommates at UF.
Although he is seen in photos posted by Easley, Dowling last month said: "Idon't know nothing about that. I seen them a weekend, that weekend. I can'tremember if they said they were going to Miami or something."
Easley and Powell declined comment through a Florida spokesman.
More than 50 tweets that weekend from Dowling and Easley include photos andreferences to a steak-and-lobster dinner and spending at least a day on theyacht. Nearly three dozen photos Dowling posted have been deleted from hisTwitter and Instagram accounts.
Florida senior associate athletics director Jamie McCloskey says Powell andEasley "were already in South Florida. They joined Sharrif and his family for anevening."
When asked by e-mail who paid for Floyd's teammates to be on the trip, Lahnreplied: "Sharrif drove down by himself. Sharrif's friends came down in theircar to Miami for the Hip Hop Festival in Miami that weekend. Sharrif stayed inthe hotel room I paid for."
Pam Herriford, associate athletic director in charge of compliance at WesternKentucky, says she was unaware Dowling was on the trip. "We'll obviously lookinto and see what we find out," she says.
Lahn says he paid to charter the yacht as a surprise for his wife and Floyd.He added that he initially planned a bigger party on a larger boat for severalof Floyd's teammates to celebrate his birthday.
"(I) ran it past Florida's compliance office and they told me that it was nota good idea to do so, so I scaled back the size of the boat and party andlimited it to just family and friends," Lahn says.
According to NCAA bylaw 18.104.22.168, athletes and their family and friends canreceive benefits as long as they are generally available to other students atthe school and their family and friends. Generally, athletes would be allowed toreceive benefits from the parent of a friend.
If Lahn paid for the other players on the trip, it could be a violation underbylaw 22.214.171.124 if Lahn is considered a representative of Florida's athleticinterests. McCloskey says Lahn has not been given that distinction and declinedto say whether the school has checked with the NCAA.
Whether that is reviewed could come down to a reasonableness test of sorts,says Infante and Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who served on the NCAACommittee on Infractions for nine years.
"The more it seems out of line with what you would expect parents of collegekids to do, the more questions are going to be asked about it," Potuto says.
Pair's foundation linked to S.C. case
Floyd's relationship with Lahn came under scrutiny in 2011 after Floyd toldFlorida officials he'd accepted financial assistance from Lahn, who was alsobeing investigated for benefits he provided to athletes at South Carolina andrecruits.
They met in summer of 2009 through the Student Athlete Mentoring (S.A.M.)Foundation, a Delaware-based non-profit group whose stated mission is to helphigh school athletes with SAT and ACT preparation and organize visits tocolleges and camps. Floyd, a Philadelphia native, was one of the first athletesmentored by Gordon before he started the foundation. Lahn was the foundation'streasurer.
According to Gordon, the foundation's president, Lahn assisted Floyd withliving expenses when he came to Florida. For accepting $2,500 and otherbenefits, Floyd was suspended for games against Florida Atlantic and Alabama atBirmingham and forced to pay $2,700 to a charity of his choice.
After the decision in Floyd's case, Florida coach Will Muschamp defended thedefensive tackle in statements that were critical of the NCAA.
"In my opinion, Sharrif is getting lumped into what is bad about collegeathletics," Muschamp said. "Sharrif is what is good about college athletics -his life is about survival, struggle, disappointment and adversity.
"The NCAA stated that he received preferential treatment; there is nothingpreferential about his life."
In the 10 days after the NCAA's decision in Floyd's case, South Carolinadissociated Lahn and Gordon - also a South Carolina alum. The NCAA infractionsreport released in April said they made impermissible inducements to recruitsfrom spring 2009 through February 2011 through the foundation and provided extrabenefits to members of the Gamecocks men's and women's track and field teams inJune 2010.
It was part of a larger NCAA investigation at South Carolina that resulted ina three-year probation, reduction in scholarships and a limit on official visitsin football and track and field, among other sanctions.
Lahn was considered by the NCAA to be a representative of South Carolina'sathletic interests because he donated more than $190,000 in his lifetime to theuniversity, according to the infractions report. He was a former president ofthe Carolina Alumni Club of Philadelphia, a football season ticketholder and amember of the Gamecock Club.
Lahn, 50, says he met Floyd as a teenager attending George Washington High inPhiladelphia. Lahn says he attended several of Floyd's games and Floyd wouldcome to his house for S.A.M. parties. After Floyd went to college, he would staywith the Lahns on breaks and holidays. Like many other players involved in thefoundation, Floyd found it easy to talk to Lahn, according to Gordon. Ron Cohen,Floyd's high school coach, describes Lahn as a "good-hearted person."
Lahn says he looked into adopting Floyd after his suspension in September andthat it was completed Dec. 19. Pennsylvania adoption records are sealed,although several people close to the family and Florida confirmed that it tookplace.
Lucille Ryans, Floyd's great grandmother, declined to comment when contactedby USA TODAY Sports. Efforts to locate Floyd's mother, Tonya Scott, wereunsuccessful.
"We made sure that his great grandmother was on board and she indicated to usshe was," Lahn says. "We also notified the University of Florida compliance andcoaching staff."
Under Pennsylvania law, Floyd could be adopted by the Lahns without theconsent from his mother or great grandmother because he was older than 18. Insome states, such as Florida, adults may still be adopted without consent butmust first notify their biological families.
Floyd's sometimes tumultuous upbringing included being raised in part by hisgreat grandmother, moving several times in high school and not knowing hisfather, who died when Floyd was young. By his own accounts, he lived in aneighborhood where selling drugs was common.
"Basically, the NCAA was telling Kevin for the next three years he could nolonger be a part of Sharrif's life," Gordon says. "At that point, it was liketaking your son away from you and saying he can't be your son for three years,you can rekindle the friendship or the father-son relationship after that. AndKevin said, 'No, that's not acceptable.' "
Lahns now guardian of Nigerian
Sitting on the shelf in the dining room of Gordon's New Jersey home is aphoto of Floyd on the day of his adoption. In front of the bench in thecourtroom, the 6-3, 303-pound tackle dwarfs Tiffany standing under his right armand Kevin under his left. They're all smiling.
Though the path the Lahns have taken could provide a blueprint for boostersor agents looking to get around NCAA rules, those interviewed who know him painta picture of Lahn as a kind man who has taken joy in helping the athletesinvolved in the foundation.
"He has no need for notoriety," Gordon says. " His only thing is to make surethat Sharrif gets through all this."
The Lahns have also taken legal responsibility for another athlete they metthrough the foundation. They are the legal guardians for Hendrix Emu, a20-year-old Nigerian basketball player who Lahn and Gordon say has politicalasylum in the United States.
Neither the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services nor the Nigerianconsulate could provide confirmation of Emu's status because those records aresealed.
According to Lahn, Emu fled Nigeria in 2003 with his family because of thedangers they faced there. After settling in England, Emu came to the USA in 2008to attend high school with the goal of playing Division I basketball but foundhimself homeless before the foundation intervened.
"His father was in prison and his mother and sisters were living in Englandwith no one to provide for them," Lahn says. "After his mother saw how Iactually helped Hendrix while others (in the USA) tried to use him, his mothergave me legal guardianship."
Emu declined an interview request from USA TODAY Sports through an athleticdepartment spokesman at Seward (Kan.) County Community College, for which heplays basketball.
Scott Willard, coach at the Miller School in Charlottesville, Va., had Emu onhis team for a year as school officials helped him sort out his transcriptsafter stops at several schools.
"When Kevin got involved, he just did it to help the kid," Willard says. "Hewas the best thing to happen to Hendrix, Kevin was. There's no doubt. He wasjust trying to help a kid out of a really, really brutal situation."
Lahn says his non-traditional family was born of circumstance. He andTiffany, 36, have full-time jobs and enjoy traveling so they have not started afamily of their own.
"It is also difficult to bring new kids into this world when you haveperfectly good kids like Sharrif and Hendrix who had such tough lives growingup," Lahn says. "The boys have someone to lean on for counseling, guidance andsupport, and Tiffany and I have the opportunity to enrich our lives by beingparents, helping them with their classwork, following their games in person andon TV and looking forward to someday being grandparents.
"None of my family members are good athletes, me included," Lahn continues,"so with my genes I would never have the opportunity to give birth to kids whoplay football or basketball in college at such a high level. Sharrif and Hendrixhave given me that opportunity."
Judging intentions of heart, wallet
Sonny Vaccaro says he sees the potential for wealthy boosters, agents or AAUcoaches to use adoptions to skirt NCAA rules . He spent 30-plus years as a shoemarketing executive and making the summer basketball circuit what it is today,time that showed him the lengths people will go to in order to beat theNCAA.
"It is a loophole because you can't define what's in a person's heart," hesays, "and they could argue, 'We love this child.' OK, but it is aloophole."
Donald Cofsky says he can recall 10-12 adult adoption cases among more thanthe 1,500 he has handled in his 25-plus years as an adoption attorney in NewJersey and Pennsylvania. Most frequently, they're done to formalize along-standing relationship.
But Cofsky, president-elect of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys,warns against making assumptions in Floyd's adoption.
"The court found it legit and did it," Cofsky says. "If on the other handthere's a football program and you see that five of the guys who are going thereare suddenly getting adopted by some local families or alumni, that'd raise someeyebrows."
Making a judgment in a case such as Floyd's isn't one the NCAA might want toget into. Ultimately, NCAA experts agree that it's unlikely the NCAA would tryto discern the motivations for adoptions.
"I think you're almost in a null set," Potuto says of the potential for abusein college athletics. "That doesn't mean there aren't boosters in cases whowould do anything for a program. But this seems to be really on the outer limitof what a booster who's really invested in a program would be willing to do justto be able to do something that NCAA rules say he can't do."
Potuto and Infante say the NCAA is unlikely to add to its lengthy rule bookgiven that the potential impact is minimal. But signaling to would-be rulebreakers that adoption serves as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card isn't in theNCAA's best interest, Infante says.
"I see the potential for something that could be abused," he says. "I don'tthink you're gonna go see the top 20 basketball players and top 100 footballplayers all of the sudden get adopted by boosters, agents, AAU coaches, somebodyelse wanting to profit off of them.
"I'm sure in a lot of cases the line between who is doing it to make a buckand who is doing it to get a kid at a certain school and then who's doing itbecause they've got a relationship with the kid, I think it's rarely truly oneor the other."
George reported from Fort Lauderdale, Kennett Square, Pa., Miami, MountHolly, N.J., Philadelphia, Wilmington, Del.
Contributing: Steve Berkowitz, Eric Prisbell, Brent Schrotenboer