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Doug Robinson: NCAA will hear BYU cross-country eligibility appeal for star Jared Ward

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 10:30 p.m. MDT

2011 NCAA Cross Country Championship hosted by Indiana State University at Terra Haute, Indiana.
BYU men's team place 4th with 203 points. 
 (Mark A. Philbrick, BYU) 2011 NCAA Cross Country Championship hosted by Indiana State University at Terra Haute, Indiana. BYU men's team place 4th with 203 points. (Mark A. Philbrick, BYU)

Responding to an appeal by BYU and perhaps media pressure, the NCAA has agreed to review the eligibility of BYU cross-country star Jared Ward Thursday morning. It is expected to make a decision the same day.

A five-person committee will participate in a conference call with Ward and BYU officials at 8 a.m., the Deseret News has learned. The NCAA will take 10 minutes to state its case for ruling Ward ineligible for a season, then BYU will be given 10 minutes to present its side of the issue.

“I hope when it’s finished they realize I really didn’t violate the spirit of the rule, and that they ruled that way in similar cases,” Ward said Wednesday night.

After returning home from an LDS mission in 2009 Ward was too late to enroll at BYU, so he trained on his own. That fall, he traveled to California to watch his younger brother compete in a regional cross-country race. Just for fun, as a prelude to the real race, there was a recreational race for coaches, parents and other supporters of the athletes.

“I had to get in a workout that day anyway, so I thought I’d just jump in the race,” Ward told the Deseret News. “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."

The NCAA ruled that the race would cost him an entire season of cross-country eligibility. According to NCAA rules, athletes who are a year removed from high school cannot compete in organized competitions that will give them a competitive advantage against collegiate athletes. Ward competed the past three years, hoping the NCAA would reverse its decision, but the NCAA denied two appeals by BYU and he has been forced to sit out the 2013 season, his senior year.

“I don’t know how I gained an advantage by competing in a race like that,” Ward said.

The Deseret News told Ward’s story a few days ago and noted its similarities with other cases that had been recently overturned.

Last week the NCAA reversed sanctions against Nathan Harries, a returned Mormon missionary and Colgate basketball player who had been ruled ineligible for a season for playing three church basketball games. About 10 weeks ago, the NCAA reversed sanctions against Steven Rhodes, a former Marine who had been ruled ineligible for two years because he had played in a recreational football league on a military base.

Both stories produced public outrage. The Harries case was reversed 48 hours after it was reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, while the Rhodes case was reversed 24 hours after it was reported by CBS.

Similarly, the Deseret News’ report about Ward has generated a backlash against the NCAA and has been referenced by websites around the country. It is highly unusual that the NCAA would agree to hear Ward's appeal so quickly.

“I’m grateful the NCAA has provided me three years to race, but I want to race with the seniors on my team,” says Ward.

BYU, ranked fifth in the nation even without Ward, will compete in the NCAA Mountain Region championships at Weber State Friday afternoon, and the national championships eight days later.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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