Updated: NCAA reverses sanctions against BYU runner

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 12:06 a.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)

After agreeing to reopen an old case and hear a rare third appeal, the NCAA reversed its decision Thursday morning and restored the eligibility of Jared Ward, BYU’s All-American cross country runner.

This clears the way for Ward, a senior from Kaysville, to compete for No. 5-ranked BYU in Friday’s NCAA region championships in Ogden and the NCAA championships in Indiana eight days later.

A five-person committee participated in a conference call with Ward and BYU officials at 8 a.m. on Thursday morning, with each side explaining their side of the issue. Shortly afterward, the NCAA informed BYU that it had restored his eligibility.

This marks the third time in 11 weeks that the NCAA has reinstated an athlete after his case was brought to the public’s attention in the media.

BYU compliance officer Chad Gwilliam had exhausted the appeals process for Ward years ago, but he convinced the NCAA last week to reopen the case after seeing media reports about the reinstatement of Colgate basketball player Nathan Harries.

Thursday’s hearing came less than a week after the Deseret News broke the story of Ward’s plight. It is highly unusual that the NCAA would grant such a hearing so quickly.

“I’m just grateful the NCAA looked into the case again and reopened the appeal process and did it in such a timely fashion,” Ward told the Deseret News. “I’m glad the NCAA made what I feel is the right decision.”

After returning home from a Mormon Church 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. As a prelude to the real race, there was a recreational race for coaches, parents and other supporters of the athletes. Ward decided to enter at the last minute.

“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 few days ago. “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 because it would give them a competitive advantage against collegiate athletes. Ward and BYU officials argued that the race wasn’t competitive and did not provide a competitive advantage.

Ward competed for BYU the past three years hoping the NCAA would reverse its decision, but the NCAA denied two appeals by BYU. He was forced to sit out the 2013 season until Thursday’s reversal. BYU coach Ed Eyestone “assumed it was over and that it was time to move on.” For that reason, he trained Ward for last month’s Chicago Marathon, where he produced a 2:16 effort.

Last week the NCAA reinstated Harries, a returned Mormon missionary and Colgate basketball player who had been ruled ineligible for a season for playing in three church basketball games. In late August, the NCAA reinstated 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 as they were picked up and posted by websites around the country. Harries was reinstated two days after his case was reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Rhodes was reinstated one day after his sanctions were reported by CBS. Ward was reinstated six days after his story was reported in the Deseret News.

“It’s hard to put into words how grateful I am to be able to toe the line with seniors and other members of the program I’ve grown to love the last few years,” said Ward. “They are some of my best friends. And I’m grateful that I received so much support from the media, teammates, BYU compliance and my coach in the appeals process.”

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

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company