Terrence Shannon’s Stellar Performance Amidst Controversy


In a better world than the one we live in, Thursday would have been a day to honor Terrence Shannon and Illinois.

The 23-year-old guard was excellent, scoring 26 points and continuing to put up high numbers, as he has for several weeks. Illinois, a club with a bad recent history in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, came up big against Morehead State, who seemed like a typical mid-major upset candidate for 25 minutes. To advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005, the Illini must first defeat Duquesne, ranked 11th.

These are supposed to be great days for Illinois and Shannon. However, few individuals around the country will celebrate.

Terrence Shannon is someone I don’t know. I’m not sure what happened on September 8 in Lawrence, Kansas, when a woman Shannon didn’t know accused him of reaching under her skirt and sexually touching her in a pub, leading to a rape prosecution under state law. I’m not sure if Illinois, as an institution and fan base, is pleased that its finest player is on the court to lead an NCAA Tournament run, or embarrassed that a federal judge compelled his restoration on Jan. 19 by determining that his suspension from the basketball team violated his civil rights.

All I know is that this is unpleasant and unfortunate. What I do know is that, regardless of how far Illinois advances in this tournament or how many points Shannon scores, he will not be addressing media questions at the request of his attorneys. What I do know is that a sexual assault charge warrants more than a fleeting comment from television broadcasters returning from a media pause on Thursday.

Most importantly, I understand that none of this is as straightforward as we would like.

Shannon, regardless of the claims, deserves due process and the presumption of innocence. However, for major offenses like this one, the privilege to play collegiate sports and represent a university is rarely guaranteed. After the warrant for Shannon’s arrest was issued on Dec. 27, Illinois suspended him, as most institutions do when charges are brought against an athlete.

Judge Colleen Lawless disagreed, saying in her decision that the suspension would cause “irreparable harm,” including a loss of money from any endorsements and the potential to affect his NBA draft standing.

Furthermore, Lawless decided that Illinois coach Brad Underwood must handle Shannon “as he would any other member of the team in good standing, and not limit participation based on the involved allegations.”

Shannon was back in action after missing six games. With a preliminary hearing in his case scheduled for May 10, he is free to finish the season and his college basketball career.

The strange part is that there is nobody to criticize. Shannon had every right to seek an injunction and be reinstated if he believed he is innocent, which he has maintained since the beginning. After the legal process concluded, the school had no choice but to play him. Even if you believe Lawless’ decision was erroneous, this is the justice system at action. Nobody has any options here.

At the same time, it’s difficult to defend Shannon. He was certainly in Lawrence that weekend, attending the Illinois football game against Kansas. The next afternoon, the woman who accused him said police she was grabbed by a man she later identified by looking up Shannon’s picture on the Illinois website.

If the matter proceeds to trial, evidence will be provided to explain why the district attorney decided to charge him. Shannon will get the opportunity to tell his side of the tale. Not only will his basketball career be on the line, but so will his freedom. Only when all of this is resolved will any of us be able to determine whether he did what he was accused of.

Should Shannon play basketball in the meantime? We have no voice in it now: not the media, not his coach, and not the school. It’s what it is.

But when Illinois progresses through the tournament and Shannon’s performance shines on the major stages, it will become a narrative too huge for the country to ignore – and not the nice, fuzzy sort that we generally like telling during March Madness.

Shannon’s unprecedented and frightening situation has now become knitted into the fabric of this tournament, after winning Most Valuable Player at the Big Ten tournament and following it up Thursday by making 9-of-16 shots in an 85-69 victory.

It would be better for the NCAA, and perhaps even for Illinois, as an institution with a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse, if the basketball team lost and all of this embarrassment vanished.

However, if Shannon continues to play like he did on Thursday, that may not happen soon.

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