Congratulations to the NCAA for reinstating BYU cross-country star Jared Ward Thursday morning in the 11th hour of his senior year.
But not really.
Ward refused to criticize the NCAA even though its ineptness cost him most of his senior season. He is a guileless young man; unfortunately, I am neither. I'll say what needs to be said. Or written, whatever.
The good news is that NCAA officials saw the light; the bad news: Why didn’t they see it in the first place?
The NCAA probably thinks it deserves a pat on the back. I tend to think it needs a kick somewhere lower.
For the record, this is the third time in three months the NCAA has reinstated athletes it has previously declared ineligible for the same infraction. We are forced to conclude that either NCAA officials were previously careless, cavalier and/or sloppy with peoples’ lives, or now they are suddenly enlightened, although I happen to believe it was more a case of political expediency. The NCAA is very unpopular these days and deservedly so; the last thing it needs is bad pub, and all three of the aforementioned cases delivered big doses of it and punched more holes in the NCAA’s armor.
Let’s see … Last week the NCAA reinstated Nathan Harries, a returned Mormon missionary and Colgate basketball player who had been ruled ineligible for an entire season because he played in three church basketball games.
In late August, the NCAA reinstated Steven Rhodes, a former Marine and would-be football player at Middle Tennessee State who had been ruled ineligible for two years because he played in a recreational football league on a military base.
This week the NCAA reinstated Ward, another returned missionary who was declared ineligible for competing in what was basically a fun run.
And common sense was just given the last rites.
All three cases produced public outrage after their stories were reported and then posted and linked on websites around the country. The Harries case was reversed two days after it was reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The Rhodes case was reversed one day after it was reported by CBS. The Ward case was reversed six days after it was reported in the Deseret News.
The NCAA didn’t overturn these cases because it was the right thing to do; it did so because it was getting barbecued in the media and then later because it also had established precedence.
The NCAA should never have sanctioned any of those athletes in the first place. NCAA rules forbid athletes one year removed from high school from competing in organized athletic events to prevent them from gaining a competitive advantage over collegiate athletes. How did that apply in these cases?
Harries was playing in what one observer called an “old man’s league” on a “C level” team against players who are mostly in their 30s, with some in their 50s and one man who had never played basketball.
As for Rhodes, he told ESPN, "It was like intramurals for us. There were guys out there anywhere from 18 to 40-something years old. We once went six weeks between games." Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill put it this way: “He spent five years defending our country. His (military) superiors … strongly encouraged him to play on the football team to improve troop morale. He’s married and has two kids. He’s not even on scholarship. He only wants to follow his dream of playing college football and starting his degree.”
Ward returned from a church mission in 2009 too late to enroll in school. He trained on his own before starting school in January. 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 since he needed to do a workout that day anyway.
Roger Buhrley, Ward’s high school coach, ran in the race that day. He describes it as a race for middle-aged, out-of-shape coaches and overweight parents. “There were two guys following me for the first mile who were discussing how drunk they had gotten the night before and how hung over they were,” says Buhrley. “One of them was about 5-7, 200 pounds. Most (of the runners) make it look like the Provo 18th Ward Fun Run. The field is comprised of an occasional costumed runner, several joggers past middle age, quite a few who look like they should jog over to Jenny Craig’s, and slow men’s and women’s coaches who are just giving their athletes an opportunity to yell ‘go catch that old lady in the pink tights’ at them. The age range is about 20 to 60.”
For this, Ward missed most of his senior season?
At best, the NCAA’s enforcement and sanctions are arbitrary and mindless. Last weekend it was reported that Kansas point guard Naadir Tharpe was suspended one game for playing in an “unauthorized” pro-am game last summer in Chicago. Meanwhile, Harries, Rhodes and Ward were suspended one to two seasons for participating in fun runs and rec leagues that clearly weren’t going to give them an advantage against collegiate athletes. NCAA rules, by the way, allow basketball players to play in summer leagues as long as they are in their home area. Don’t even try to make sense out of that. Or this: Johnny Manziel, the Heisman winner, gets suspended for a half-game for selling autographs.
By reinstating Ward, the NCAA enabled him to compete in Friday’s NCAA region championships in Ogden and the NCAA championships eight days later. They just can't give back the other meets he missed this season and the opportunities to compete with his senior class.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org