NCAA must explain decision-making process in hardship waivers to salvage credibility

Andy Lyons

The NCAA appears to lack consistency in its transfer waiver rulings. It's time for that to change.

The NCAA issued a release on Nov. 2, 2012 that was supposed to serve the student athlete. It was supposed to show a compassionate, understanding side to an organization that many believe has only feigned interest in the college students who bring in so many millions of dollars of revenue each year.

The release states early on that hardship waiver requests differ from case to case. Under new guidelines, an athlete may now receive a hardship waiver to transfer to a school closer to home in the event that an immediate family member falls ill. Below is an outline of what the player's school must prove in order to be eligible for such a waiver that would allow him or her to play immediately, rather than sit out for one year, as most transfers have to do:

  • The school presents medical documentation of a debilitating injury or illness to a student-athlete's immediate family member that is debilitating and requires ongoing medical care. The previous standard had been "life-threatening."
  • The student-athlete demonstrates he or she will be responsible for regular, ongoing caregiving responsibilities. The previous standard required the student-athlete to be the primary, day-to-day caregiver.
  • The school is within a 100-mile radius of the immediate family member's home, which demonstrates the ability for the student-athlete to provide regular, ongoing care. Previously, no distance limitation was in place.
  • The school to which the student-athlete is transferring must submit a statement from the athletics director and faculty athletics representative confirming that the student-athlete will be relieved of responsibilities to the team in order to care for the injured or ill family member, and that the coaching staff will support such a departure.

These seem like reasonable guidelines. So why is it that Kerwin Okoro was not allowed to play immediately after transferring from Iowa State to Rutgers after losing his brother and father in the span of two months? Because the death of a family member is not considered hardship while a "debilitating illness" is? Okoro's reason for transferring to Rutgers was so that he could help his family work through such a difficult time. He is from the Bronx, well within 100 miles from Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are appealing the decision, so presumably they submitted the required statement.

So the NCAA does not allow Okoro to play immediately. It's horrible, but that is the decision. But, because the players applying for such waivers don't often keep it a secret, fans and media can easily compare stories of hardship when determining if these rulings are fair. And the NCAA does not bother to clarify matters.

Compare Okoro to Pitt's Trey Zeigler. Zeigler applied for and was granted a waiver to play immediately after his father was fired from his assistant coaching job at Central Michigan -- Zeigler's former school. While this is a valid reason to transfer, why is it that Zeigler can play immediately but Okoro cannot? There is precedent for those in Zeigler's situation not having to sit out, but that does not justify it, given that there is no specific NCAA rule allowing it. The NCAA does, however, allow for a hardship waiver if a family member is laid off, causing severe financial hardship and forcing the student to move closer to home. Zeigler is originally from Michigan, not Pittsburgh, where he transferred.

I am not the first to compare these two cases, nor am I the first to compare Florida International's Rakeem Buckles to his former teammate Malik Smith. Both applied for waivers to play at Minnesota after FIU was declared ineligible for the 2014 postseason. Buckles was denied while Smith was accepted. Their cases seemed identical.

Common sense would indicate that the NCAA should provide an explanation of, say, why Okoro cannot play, but Zeigler was granted an exception, or why Smith can play but Buckles was forced to return to FIU. Instead, the NCAA has allowed its own public shaming to occur, notably from basketball personalities like Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas.

We must draw our own conclusions, and frankly that is difficult to do. Buckles is a solid student and the NCAA allows for athletes in his situation to play right away at a new school (NCAA bylaw 14.8.2.e):

(e) On the recommendation of the Committee on Academic Performance, for a student-athlete who transfers to a member institution to continue the student-athlete's opportunity for full participation in a sport because the student-athlete's original institution is ineligible for postseason competition, pursuant to the Academic Performance Program, that would preclude the institution's team in that sport from participating in postseason competition during all of the remaining seasons of the student-athlete's eligibility, provided the student-athlete would have been academically eligible had he or she remained at his or her original institution.

So because Buckles appears to fit the criteria, the Committee on Academic Performance, which Andy Glockner describes as "a 15-person group which reports to the Division I Board of Directors and oversees all of the NCAA's Academic Progress Plan regulations and changes," decided there was something about Buckles that it didn't like. What was it? We can only guess. And because nothing logical comes to mind that would differentiate Buckles from Smith, we are left to believe that the NCAA's decisions are arbitrary at best.

In order to salvage any shred of credibility, the NCAA must do one of two things in the case of transfer waivers. It must either become fully transparent, revealing the nuances of each individual case, or it must set clear-cut rules that leave no room for interpretation. No more relying on precedent. No more making people believe that you think that a death in the family does not count as hardship when an illness in the family does.

I'm not calling for fairness here. Heck, I'm not even calling for these rules to make sense. I'm just asking for us to know exactly how they are applied. Otherwise, we're all left guessing. That's not good for us, and it's a PR nightmare for the NCAA.

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