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.
Hoping the NCAA would change its mind, Ward resumed his running career immediately. He won three All-American certificates in track and one in cross country, but with the NCAA holding its position he has been forced to sit out the current season of cross country, his senior year. Even without Ward, BYU ranks fifth in the nation heading into the NCAA Cross Country Championships in two weeks. With Ward, they would have a realistic shot at a national championship.
It’s not as if Ward were seeking an extra year of eligibility (a fifth or sixth year), as many athletes do. He’s never even used a redshirt season. He’s a scholar-athlete who already is working on a master’s degree in statistics. He is a team captain at BYU. He’s married and has one child. You can see why the NCAA wouldn’t want a guy like this around.
“I’ve been coaching here 13 years and coached hundreds of athletes and there’s been no one finer than Jared Ward,” says Eyestone.
The irony is that if Ward had returned from his mission two weeks earlier, he would have enrolled at BYU immediately and trained daily with the BYU team, which would certainly be more of a competitive advantage than training on his own and running in races against guys in tuxedos.
Under NCAA rules, Ward and Harries could have competed in organized competition if they had done so within a year after graduation, but they chose instead to serve missions for their church. It could be argued that the year-long grace period should have been suspended while they served missions — since the NCAA clock is turned off during military and church service — and resume when they returned from their mission.
By caving in on the Harries and Rhodes cases, the NCAA has not only provided precedence, it has demonstrated that it believes its rules are necessary and justifiable until they are subjected to public ridicule. The NCAA's rules are rules of convenience and, in the case of Harris, Rhodes and Ward, just plain mean-spirited.
The NCAA's sanctions are also capricious and arbitrary. Take the Johnny Manziel case, for instance. He was accused of selling autographs for thousands of dollars, a severe violation of the rules. For that he was forced to sit out the first half against lowly Rice. One suspects the NCAA simply didn’t have the guts to suspend him because of the public grief they would have had to endure if they had ruled the Heisman Trophy winner ineligible.
So, Manziel loses half of a game; Harries, Rhodes and Ward lose a season or more each. They didn’t even knowingly break a rule, and certainly none were doing so to gain a competitive advantage.
The NCAA has painted itself into a corner on the Ward case. If they don’t grant him the same reversal they granted Harries and Rhodes, or show the same leniency they showed Manziel, they are giving one treatment to the powerful revenue-producing sports of basketball and football, while picking on the so-called minor sports.
At the end of the day, anyone with common sense would ask this question: What harm did Ward (and Harries and Rhodes) do to the college game?
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org