In denying quarterback Jeremiah Masoli a chance to play at Ole Miss this season, the NCAA noted that Masoli violated the spirit of its graduate student transfer rule. Masoli, the NCAA reasoned, had transferred only because he was thrown off the team at Oregon -- not because he longed to obtain a master's degree in Parks and Recreation from Mississippi's flagship university.
Lafayette College safety Tyler McFarlane would love to know when the NCAA began using common sense to interpret the spirit of its rules, because staffers were strict constructionists in February when they told McFarlane that he would have to sit out for a second consecutive year.
Welcome to the maddening world of the transfer athlete at the mercy of the NCAA, where the rules apply as written -- unless they don't.
We'll start with Masoli. The NCAA is probably 100 percent correct in its assertion that Masoli used the rule to avoid sitting out a year at his new school after he was tossed off Oregon's football team in June following his second legal scrape in less than six months. The NCAA's decision to delay the granting of the waiver until 2011 probably would be considered a noble act if no one Googled the names Kenneth Cooper or Eniel Polynice.
Cooper is a 6-foot-10 center who played his final collegiate basketball season at Alabama-Birmingham. Cooper started his career at Oklahoma State. After two years in Stillwater, he transferred to Louisiana Tech. Cooper sat out his first season in Ruston, per NCAA transfer rules. Cooper played 15 games as a redshirt junior before Bulldogs coach Kerry Rupp dismissed him for an unspecified violation of team rules. In 2009, with a degree in hand, Cooper transferred to UAB so he could obtain a master's in health education. He also wanted to play a little basketball.
The NCAA granted a waiver to Cooper, who, like Masoli, only needed a new school because he'd been booted from the team at his old one.
That brings us to Polynice, a basketball guard who played in 102 games in three seasons at -- wait for it -- Ole Miss. In March, Rebels coach Andy Kennedy suspended Polynice indefinitely from the program. Polynice was allowed to return for the NIT, but he was no longer a starter.
Polynice's original plan was to enter the NBA draft, but he realized quickly there wasn't a market for shooting guards who averaged less than 10 points a game for NIT-bound teams. So, after that plan fell through, Polynice decided to pursue his lifelong dream of obtaining a master's in communication from Seton Hall. At least, we must assume it was his lifelong dream. Otherwise, why would the NCAA have granted Polynice a waiver to play this season for the Pirates?
When NCAA member schools voted to override the 2006 rule that allowed any graduate to transfer and be eligible immediately -- made famous when cornerback Ryan Smith transferred from Utah directly into a starting spot at eventual national champion Florida, which was thin at Smith's position -- the idea was to limit the waivers granted to athletes who wanted to transfer for purely academic reasons.
"Our conference supports the override because we support the academic pursuits of the student-athletes," Big Ten associate commissioner Carol Iwaoka said at the 2007 NCAA convention. "We want transfers through a waiver process that offers quality control."
It certainly seems as if basketball was the overriding factor for Cooper and Polynice's decisions to transfer. For that matter, who really believes Greg Paulus left Duke after a four-year basketball career just to study at Syracuse in 2009? The NCAA happily offered Paulus -- who, in all fairness, was never jettisoned from his team -- a waiver and praised him in the process. But everyone knows Paulus transferred so he could play football. Duke offers football; the Blue Devils just didn't have an opening for a starting quarterback. Syracuse, Michigan and Nebraska did. Those, coincidentally, are the schools Paulus considered.
So if the NCAA is divining intent before ruling on these waivers, and if the only acceptable intent is a transfer for purely academic purposes, then why were any of these athletes offered waivers?
That brings us to Lafayette's McFarlane. The safety isn't dealing with the same transfer rule as Masoli, but his situation bears examination. Because if NCAA staffers had decided to be activist judges in McFarlane's case like they were in Masoli's case, then McFarlane would be suiting up when the Leopards open their season against Georgetown on Sept. 11.
McFarlane, like Masoli, made a mistake that ultimately landed him in his current mess. As a sophomore at Bucknell, McFarlane and several other players were caught stealing textbooks from the library. McFarlane said he took two books. That offense earned McFarlane a three-semester suspension from school. (We'll pause here as fans of SEC schools scoff at the draconian punishment and wonder why McFarlane wasn't merely suspended for the Duquesne game.)
Seeing no future for himself at Bucknell after his stupid criminal act, McFarlane transferred to Hofstra. There, he sat out the 2009 season, per NCAA transfer rules. On Dec. 3, Hofstra's players were summoned to a meeting. The school had decided to drop football. McFarlane said the players were told by athletic department officials not to worry; the NCAA would grant them all waivers that would allow them to play football in 2010.
McFarlane decided to transfer to Lafayette, an FCS school in Easton, Pa., that plays in the Patriot League. There was only one catch. Because Lafayette doesn't offer graduate degrees, McFarlane couldn't spend the spring semester at Hofstra. If he had, he would have had too many credits to transfer to Lafayette. So McFarlane transferred in January. That's when his NCAA nightmare began.
McFarlane applied for his waiver before he set foot on Lafayette's campus. He said he had been assured by coaches and administrators at Hofstra that the waiver was a formality. On Feb. 4, his request was denied. The NCAA decided that because McFarlane didn't spend a year in residence at Hofstra, he wasn't eligible for a waiver. "Based on intent of the legislation, circumstances do not warrant relief of the legislation and circumstances within the [student-athlete's] control," read the message McFarlane received from the NCAA informing him that his request had been denied.
McFarlane appealed, certain the overriding circumstance (Hofstra dropping football) would convince the NCAA to reconsider. A subcommittee denied that appeal on Feb. 16. NCAA staffers wrote that McFarlane had been told by Hofstra officials that he would have to spend the spring semester at Hofstra. McFarlane denies this. Had he known, he said, he wouldn't have transferred to Lafayette. Instead, he would have chosen a school that would have taken him after another semester at Hofstra.
The NCAA offered McFarlane a teleconference with a staffer to explain the decision. McFarlane was asked to submit questions for the staff. He sent two pages. "They answered not one question," he said. "They just talked around everything."
So McFarlane will sit out two years for taking two books. The easy answer is that he shouldn't have taken the books in the first place, but the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime. "I feel like I'm being punished for the same thing two years in a row," McFarlane said.
McFarlane understands the reason behind the rule -- to keep players from jumping from school to school and eliminate a free-agent market. But he didn't want to change schools. If Hofstra still had a football team, he'd still be there.
The NCAA ruled by the letter of the law in the McFarlane case. He didn't complete a year in residence, so he sits. It ruled by the spirit of the law in the Masoli case. Sure, he met the requirements of the transfer, but he didn't transfer for the correct reasons. The NCAA didn't seem to care one way or the other in the Cooper or Polynice cases.
That's the problem. The NCAA needs to decide whether it is an activist or a strict constructionist and apply its rules uniformly. Anything else would make the people who hold the keys to athletes' eligibility look like a bunch of hypocrites.