INDIANAPOLIS — This is a story about a couple of guys named O’Brien and how the NCAA explained itself in a rare inside — literally — glimpse into its decision making that often baffles those of us outside the inner sanctum.
Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president for academic and membership affairs, agreed to visit with me about them and their cases, perfect examples of why we sometimes scratch our heads when decisions come out of the NCAA.
Quickly, and there are extraneous circumstances in both cases that we’ll explain as we go:
Todd O’Brien is a graduate student at Alabama-Birmingham, where he transferred from St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia. He already graduated from St. Joseph’s and has a year of eligibility left if the NCAA would let him play for UAB this season. It won’t. He appealed and lost. Case closed, although it garnered both St. Joe’s and the NCAA plenty of bad publicity.
Peter O’Brien is a senior catcher. He played three years at Bethune-Cookman and then transferred to Miami, where he is from. The NCAA denied him immediate eligibility, but an appeals committee granted it.
Which is where the conversation with Lennon began. I started it out by suggesting that there are some sports in which you have to sit a year when you transfer and there others that, provided no one objects (usually the school losing the athlete) that they’re immediately eligible.
“There have been select sports historically that when you transfer from one school to another you’re going to have to sit out, which we call the residency requirement where you can practice but can’t compete,” Lennon said. “Recently baseball was added to that mix when the presidents [of NCAA schools] said that’s a sport where we’re going to have that residency requirement apply.”
Aha! See, I knew football players (unless they transfer down a division) and basketball players had to sit out. But I thought baseball players didn’t have to, but that rule was changed a few years ago. In other sports — including the Olympic sports — it’s almost like free agency these days. I think for reasons of academics and illegal recruiting the NCAA frowns on transferring in general, but it’s so commonplace it’s like an afterthought. And athletes can even transfer and gain immediate eligibility — although it happens very rarely — in football and basketball.
“The membership has said that there may be some unique circumstances that would come forward and permit a student to be immediately eligible, whether it’s football, basketball or baseball,” Lennon said. “They wanted the association to have some circumstances to allow a student to be immediately eligible.
“That was the process that Peter O’Brien and the University of Miami went through to have it reviewed under that particular provision that the membership has created.”
O’Brien happens to be a very good baseball player. The catcher is from Miami, but at Bethune-Cookman batted .304 as a junior last season with 14 home runs and 69 runs batted in. In 2010 he was the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year and was a freshman All-American in 2009. He was taken in the third round of last year’s MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies, but he transferred to Miami instead.
He began the appeals process last summer and was approved on Jan. 22. He has personal reasons for going back home, none of which the NCAA discusses, but it’s believed he wanted to help care for a close family member.
Said Miami coach Jim Morris: “We go from basically an inexperienced catcher to a senior that might be the best in the country.”
Lennon explained some of the criteria the NCAA considered. He started by saying it shouldn’t be for athletic reasons. In O’Brien’s case, caring for a family member was considered.
“It’s challenging,” Lennon said, “because you don’t want to divulge everything about this young man’s personal life but I think you get a sense of the type of guidelines that the committee has identified.”
Remember, too, that the NCAA originally denied the waiver.
“The staff is held to a little bit of a stricter standard,” Lennon said. “But the subcommittee on appeal approved it. And people don’t always recognize it, this is part of our structure, but it’s why we have a membership body composed of representatives of our schools who always get the last bite of the apple in decision making who in this instance said, ‘OK, we can understand the guidelines that we gave the staff and why they did what they did, but we have a little bit more authority to step out of that when we look at the totality of the facts.’ And they elected in this instance to provide that relief.”
Now would be a good time to tell you about the subcommittee, because it figures large later on. Kelly Brooks, who works with Lennon in NCAA Academic and Member Affairs, explained that the five-member committee is made up of representatives from different member schools, not people from the NCAA office.
“They are A.D.s, conference office administrators, school compliance administrators, faculty members,” Brooks said.
It’s important to note that Bethune-Cookman didn’t challenge Peter O’Brien’s transfer.
“I think the process worked,” Lennon said.
The other O’Brien would probably beg to differ. For that matter, Todd O’Brien has done so and done it quite publicly. He wrote an open letter of appeal on SI.com in late December stating his case. But St. Joseph’s had refused to release him, making it even tougher. St. Joe’s has remained silent about it, too.
O’Brien started his basketball career at Bucknell and transferred after one season to St. Joseph’s. He sat out the 2008-09 season and then the 7-footer played in 28 games for St. Joe’s. Last season, his playing time diminished as he averaged 7 minutes and 1 point per game. O’Brien graduated last spring and then enrolled at UAB with an eye on a master’s in public administration.
Much like baseball players being eligible immediately, I had it in my head that football and basketball players could graduate from one school and go to grad school at another and automatically play right away if they had eligibility remaining.
Not so, Lennon explained. Up until five years that was the case, but now it must appealed.
Which is what Todd O’Brien did and on the surface it seemed like an open-and-shut case. He wants to play for a team that’s not going to face St. Joe’s, he’s likely not even going to contribute that much on the floor, and, well, there is a scene in the movie Blazing Saddles when Slim Pickens exclaims, “What in the wide, wide world of sports is a going on here?”
A lot of people feel that way because the NCAA doesn’t explain itself. Here’s the amazing part: When the NCAA did explain itself, I learned that it was the exact same appeals committee that turned down this O’Brien.
“In the instance that we’re talking about here, you begin to apply the criteria and was the reason for the transfer athletically motivated or not? That’s a key criteria,” Lennon said. “In this case is the first institution supportive of the transfer? That’s one of the many factors we gather in making the decision. In that instance, the staff and ultimately the committee did not believe that the facts presented to them really satisfied granting that particular waiver.”
All of which makes you think there’s more to this story than meets the eye, and from looking in their eyes, I know that must be true. But the NCAA doesn’t talk about the kids and/or reveal anything that might make them look bad.
“There’s a constant battle we have in divulging enough information to satisfy an interested public with privacy and legitimate concerns that individuals in the process may or may not want to have out in the air,” Lennon said.
“And let’s talk about the first [O’Brien]. You’re talking about family situations, right? Each of us has maybe a different level of tolerance of the NCAA explaining in its graphic entirety why a waiver was granted that may involve lots of issues with one’s family.
“So you have to strike a balance between letting people say, ‘I understand that now and can really appreciate that and they went into great detail and I’m glad people don’t know that about me but I really glad because I really feel better about the NCAA decision.’
“And on the flip side of that, you all can ask questions of institutions as to why they elect to grant waivers and obviously that’s a part of your job to do that, but everyone along the way has to make a decision as to their level of comfort explaining themselves.
“And that’s just a challenging line that we face in all of our decisions. And it’s compounded by the fact that your talking about 18- to 22-year-olds and things that they’ve done or might have done. And their families. These are not professional athletes who have put themselves out and put themselves subject to a greater level of scrutiny as it relates to their personal lives and those of their families.”
Nor does the NCAA talk publicly about academic records, either.
“I think there’s a back and forth,” Lennon admitted, “with how much to give to satisfy the public that doesn’t cross a line of decency and fairness to the parties involved.”
NCAA member schools create rules to ensure that the Association’s 430,000 student-athletes compete on equal footing. Various NCAA committees and the national office staff members work to make sure rules are applied fairly.
Which brings me back to there always being more to these things than meet the eye. But the NCAA could have made things so much easier on itself if it had just pointed out that the two appeals committee were the same five people.
“You have the same group of people looking at the facts and drawing distinctions,” Lennon said.
“In the old NCAA days, and this is kind of pre-Myles Brand [the late president of the NCAA from 2002-2009], we were really criticized for such a cookie-cutter, precedent-based approach. If it looks like it’s in the fruit family, whether it’s a banana or an orange, it’s going to get the same decision because we don’t want to create distinctions, we don’t want to look at what’s unique and fact patterns.
“Our membership overwhelmingly rejected that. We were criticized because it wasn’t sophisticated enough to look at distinctions. And when you look at distinctions, you subject yourself to a call of inconsistency. That’s the dilemma and that’s why we’re having this conversation.”
Which I was glad we did. I learned that the NCAA has nearly 4,000 waiver situations a year to deal with and hundreds that go to an appeals committee. These were just two that made headlines.
“Every decision we make is subject to a committee appeal,” Lennon said.
It made me glad I don’t work there. But I did leave there feeling better about things and believing they’re trying. So the last word should go to Lennon.
“We really are trying to figure out the right place to be with the amount of information to provide, not only to the public but to our membership,” Lennon said. “We want everyone to understand the rationale for outcomes and we absolutely appreciate the need for as much clarity as possible so that folks can remain confident in the system and confident in the decision making while at the same time balancing some of the privacy and remembering that these are young people whose lives don’t need to be open books for everybody.”
|GRADUATE TRANSFER RULE EVOLUTION|
Prior to 2006-07: If a graduate student-athlete with one year of eligibility remaining wanted to transfer after graduation and play at a different institution, the student-athlete was required to go through the waiver process to play right away.
2006-07: The rule was revised to allow a graduate student-athlete with one year of eligibility remaining to transfer and play right away, without going through the waiver process.
2007-08: The NCAA membership reversed the changes made in 2006-07 through the legislative override process (a normal part of the NCAA legislative structure) and enacted a wavier process if the graduated student-athlete did not meet the one-time transfer rule in football. This is intended to ensure the graduated student-athlete is transferring for academic reasons. This is when the requirement for transferring to a graduate school that has a master’s program that is not offered at the current institution of the student-athlete began.
2011-12: The most recent amendment changed the rule to allow graduate students in the sports of baseball, basketball, men’s ice hockey or bowl subdivision football who do not meet the one-time transfer exception to use the exception if he or she fulfills the remaining conditions of the one-time transfer exception, has at least one season of competition remaining and his/her athletically related financial aid for the following academic year was not renewed by the previous institution.
The current rule: