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Doug Robinson: NCAA wrong again in case of BYU cross-country runner stripped of eligibility for costume race

Published: Friday, Nov. 8 2013 3:00 p.m. MST

Mark A. Emmert, president of the University of Washington, speaks during a news conference after being announced as the new president of the NCAA in Indianapolis, Tuesday, April 27, 2010. Emmert succeeds Myles Brand, who died last September from pancreatic cancer. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

AJ Mast, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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For the second time in 2½ months, the NCAA came to its senses and reversed field after picking on some helpless athlete, but only after getting slapped around by the media.

There is still unfinished business. There is at least one more wrong that needs to be righted, and this involves an athlete at BYU.

Earlier this week, we learned the case of Nathan Harries, the returned Mormon missionary and Colgate basketball player who lost a year of eligibility because he played in three church basketball games — an “old man’s league,” some called it, whose competitors included one man who had never played basketball. Some 24 hours after the Atlanta Journal Constitution broke the story, generating a public backlash against the NCAA, the NCAA backed down and declared him eligible without waiting for the usual months-long appeals process.

About 10 weeks ago, there was the case of Steven Rhodes, the former Marine who was ruled ineligible for two years and forced to take a mandatory redshirt year because he had played in a recreational football league on a military base. Twenty-four hours after CBS reported this story, generating more outrage from the public, the NCAA restored his eligibility, again skipping the normal appeals process.

So now, with two precedent-setting cases on public record, the Deseret News is reporting another case today that deserves to be reversed. It mirrors the Nathan Harries case. Long story short: Jared Ward, a returned missionary at BYU and a four-time cross country and track All-American, was denied a year of eligibility by the NCAA because he once ran in a recreational cross-country race against fat, old guys and people wearing bird costumes.

Like Harries, Ward served an LDS Church mission right out of high school. He returned in September 2009, a couple of weeks too late to enroll in school. He decided to spend the next three months training to regain his fitness after two years of inactivity before he enrolled for winter semester. That fall, he traveled to California to watch his younger brother compete in a regional cross-country race. Just for the fun, as a prelude to the real race, there was a recreational race for coaches, parents and other supporters of the athletes. It is a just-for-fun event whose entrants range from teens to 70-year-olds. The race is so lighthearted that some of the entrants wear costumes.

“I had to get in a workout that day anyway, so I thought I’d just jump in the race,” Ward says. “A lot of the entrants try to get a laugh out of the kids, so they wear costumes. I recall someone wearing a tuxedo and another guy in a bird suit and a monkey or gorilla costume. It’s not uncommon."

When Ward enrolled at BYU, he filled out the usual NCAA compliance forms, which include questions about participation in outside competition. According to NCAA rules, athletes who are a year removed from high school are not allowed to compete in organized competitions that will give them a competitive advantage. It is designed to prevent athletes from participating in competitive leagues that would give them an advantage before beginning college.

“Jared noted that he had run in the coaches race," says BYU coach Ed Eyestone. "He felt it was innocuous enough that it would be ignored. Yes, the race was timed and it was organized, but there certainly was no advantage gained by it. He was just there to support his brother and decided to run in the race.”

As Ward puts it, "If I were trying to gain an advantage by running in a competitive race, I wouldn’t have chosen that race. It’s not a competitive effort.”

The NCAA not only ruled that Ward would lose an entire season of cross country for one 16-minute effort, it intimated that he was lucky the penalty wasn’t more severe. BYU appealed twice and was denied twice.

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