December 19, 2011

When you're seven-feet tall, you expect people to ask: "Do you play basketball?" While I still get this question all the time, I'm not sure what to tell them these days. I have a basketball scholarship this season at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I practice with the team, work out with the team, and dress with the team. But then the games start and I am pinned to the bench, ineligible to play. It's not about grades or discipline or injury. It's more simple -- and more complicated -- than that. My former school, Saint Joseph's in Philadelphia, won't sign a simple form releasing me.

Here's my story:

My name is Todd O'Brien. I'm 22 years old. In 2007, I became the first person from Garden Spot High (located in Lancaster County in New Holland, Pa.) to earn a Division I basketball scholarship. I attended Bucknell University from 2007 to 2008, where I made the Patriot League All-Rookie team. After the season, I decided the school and its basketball program weren't the right fit for me. I wanted to follow the footsteps of my uncle Bruce Frank, a former Penn player, and play in the Big 5. I transferred and was given a full scholarship to play basketball at St. Joe's for coach Phil Martelli. After sitting out in 2008-2009, I earned the starting center spot for the 2009-2010 season. Though our team struggled, I was able to start 28 games and led the team in rebounding. I also was the recipient of the team's Academic Achievement award for my work in the classroom.

Entering the next season, I had aspirations of keeping my starting role, increasing my productivity on the court, and most importantly -- winning more games. Off the court my goal was to continue getting good grades and to position myself to earn my degree studying Economics.

As the season got under way, however, things didn't exactly go as planned. Our team struggled and I saw my playing time decrease more and more as Coach Martelli opted to play the young members of our team. I had never sat on the bench before in my career, and to be honest, it was very frustrating. At the same time I understood that college athletics is a business; if the coaching staff felt they had the best chance to win by playing certain guys, it was their duty to do so. As the season went on things did not improve much, but on a brighter note I entered my last semester as an undergrad. On top of my regular classes, I had picked up an independent study internship at the Delaware County Municipal Building, where the focus of my study was on local economics.

Though I still needed to pass three summer courses to officially earn my degree, I was allowed to walk in graduation that May. At the urging of my parents, my Economics advisor and other family friends, I began looking at graduate programs for the fall semester.

A friend asked why I didn't just go get a grad degree and play elsewhere. He had seen that Michigan State had just landed a big-time scorer by way of Valparaiso thanks to an NCAA rule that allowed graduated players with eligibility left to pursue a grad degree elsewhere and play immediately, provided the school offers a degree option not available at the previous school.

I was familiar with the rule, but had never given it much thought. To be honest, I didn't want to be "that guy", the player who had bounced around to three schools in five seasons. I dismissed the idea initially, but it still lingered in the back of my mind. And when my Saint Joseph's scholarship papers for my fourth year of eligibility arrived at my house that May, I held onto them rather than sign immediately.

After I finished up my first summer course in June, I began to think more and more about applying for grad school elsewhere. The real world seemed to be fast approaching, and I had a decision to make. I discussed my options with my parents (my father, Roy, is a college math professor and my mother, Pam, is a Para-Educator) and a former coach of mine with whom I'm very close, and they all told me the same thing: Basketball can end any day with an awkward landing or unlucky fall, but an education lasts a lifetime. I called the NCAA hotline three times over the next several weeks to make sure I was eligible to use the Grad Student Transfer Exception. Each time I was informed that I met the criteria, and I would be allowed to use it.

I met with Coach Martelli to inform him that I would not be returning. I had hoped he would be understanding; just a few weeks before, we had stood next to each other at graduation as my parents snapped photo. Unfortunately, he did not take it well. After calling me a few choice words, he informed me that he would make some calls so that I would be dropped from my summer class and would no longer graduate. He also said that he was going to sue me. When he asked if I still planned on leaving, I was at a loss for words. He calmed down a bit and said we should think this over then meet again in a few days. I left his office angry and worried he would make me drop the classes.

A few days later I again met with Coach Martelli. This time I stopped by athletic director Don DiJulia's office beforehand to inform him of my decision. I told him I would be applying to grad schools elsewhere. He was very nice and understanding. He wished me the best of luck and said to keep in touch. Relieved that Mr. DiJulia had taken the news well, I went to Coach Martelli's office. I told him that my mind had not changed, and that I planned on enrolling in grad school elsewhere. I recall his words vividly: "Regardless of what the rule is I'll never release you. If you're not playing basketball at St. Joe's next year, you won't be playing anywhere."

Over the next couple weeks things seemingly settled down with the folks at St. Joe's, and I was given a "permission to speak form" form. I contacted more than 20 schools. One of these was The University of Alabama Birmingham. I found online that the school offered a Public Administration program. I want to get into real estate development, so my focus in my degree is Public Administration with a focus in Community Development. In fact, my internship had touched on that exact area of study. It seemed like it could be a good fit, so I sent a "permission to speak form" their way.

The next day I was contacted by UAB associate head coach Donnie Marsh. Coach Marsh played his college ball in Lancaster County at Franklin and Marshall University. We hit it off right away, and he suggested I fly to Birmingham to take a visit. I did, and I immediately knew it was the place I wanted to be. I moved to Alabama in mid-August and our team began preseason workouts and classes shortly after I arrived. Having never lived so far from home, it was a difficult adjustment at first. But I felt very comfortable with the coaches and began building great friendships with my teammates.

The administrators at UAB had experience with players joining as grad school exceptions in the past, so they were familiar with the process. To our surprise though, when Saint Joseph's turned in the requested paperwork to the NCAA about my transfer, school officials had selected "Yes" to the the question "Do you object to Todd O'Brien being eligible for competition this season?" Under the part that said "If yes, then why do you object" there was no reason.

Confused, UAB contacted Saint Joseph's to ask why they had done this. Turns out, Coach Martelli was adamant to the athletic director that I should not be allowed to play because I had "wronged him." A few days later, St. Joe's submitted a letter saying my move to UAB was "more athletic then academically motivated." For them to say it was not academic is foolish; I did an internship in the exact area of study, and Saint Joseph's did not offer any grad degree programs pertaining to that field.

Over the next few weeks there were numerous phone conversations between Coach Martelli, Don DiJulia, my parents and UAB administrators trying to understand why SJU's administration so strongly opposed to me playing at UAB. It was frustrating to realize that a coach whom you had worked so hard for day in and day out in practice and the weight room over the past three years would treat you like a piece of property that he owned and controlled. What's equally as frustrating is that the NCAA allows it.

I continued to focus on preseason workouts at UAB, but in the back of my mind a shred of doubt crept in. What if I don't get to play my senior year? I had already redshirted before, so there were no more seasons for me to sit and do a year in residence. It was either play this year or be done. I tried to ignore these thoughts, and I had faith that the NCAA wouldn't allow one man's grudge to take my season away from me. After all, their mission is to help out STUDENT athletes.

I appealed the NCAA's decision, and I hired an attorney. Though I hoped that I could get the NCAA to change their decision, I knew that the easiest way to solve the problem would be to work things out with St. Joe's. The NCAA even encouraged me to contact them and sort things out diplomatically. My father contacted Mr. DiJulia and offered to pay for the summer classes which I had taken while still on scholarship at St. Joe's. I kept waiting for a higher power at the school to intervene and do the right thing, yet nobody did. I was disgusted. Where were the Jesuit values?

With no movement on Saint Joseph's end, my faith was left in the hands of a five-member NCAA committee. I pleaded my case, stating how St Joe's was acting in a vindictive manner and how the NCAA must protect its student-athletes. When it was my turn to speak, I talked about how much it would hurt to lose my final season of college basketball, not just for me but for my parents, sisters and all of my relatives who take pride in watching me play. To work so hard for something, waking up at 6 a.m. to run miles on a track, spending countless hours spent in the gym shooting, and to have it all taken away because a head coach felt disrespected that I left in order to further pursue academics? It's just not right.

Later that day the NCAA contacted UAB to inform the school that my waiver had been denied. The rules state that I needed my release from St. Joe's, and I didn't have it. I am the first person to be denied this waiver based on a school's refusal. I was crestfallen. The NCAA has done a lot for me in life -- I've gotten a free education, I've traveled the country playing basketball, and for all of this I am thankful. But in this instance I think they really dropped the ball. To deny a grad student eligibility to play based on the bitter opinion of a coach? You can't be afraid to set precedent if it means doing the right thing.

My lawyer continues to plead to St Joe's to release me, but the school no longer will discuss the issue. When my parents try to contact Coach Martelli, Don Dijulia, or President Smithson, they hide behind their legal counsel. When we try to contact the legal counsel, they hide behind the NCAA. A simple e-mail from any one of them saying they no longer object to me playing would have me suited up in uniform tomorrow, yet they refuse.

So here I am, several states away from home, practicing with the team every day, working hard on the court, in the weight room and in the classroom. I keep the faith that one day (soon, I hope) somebody from St. Joe's will step up and do the right thing, so if that day comes I'll be ready. I just finished my first semester of grad classes, and I enjoy it a lot. When somebody asked if I would be leaving to try to play overseas now that I've been denied the ability to play here, I said no. I said it before and I'm sticking to it -- I'm here to get a graduate degree.

Whenever I get frustrated about the situation, I think back to something my mother told me on the phone one day. "This isn't the end of basketball. Basketball ends when you want it to, whether that's next year, in five years, or in 50 years. You control your relationship with the game, and nobody, not St. Joe's, not the NCAA, can take that away from you."

But right now, they sure are trying to.

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