O'Brien's story became well-known after he published his account for SI.com three weeks ago. In an article O'Brien wrote himself ("It took me a long time," he said), he explained the reason he can't play in games for UAB is his former coach, Phil Martelli of Saint Joseph's, will not give him a release to play at UAB, as is required by NCAA rules.
O'Brien graduated from Saint Joseph's last May. The NCAA allows students who have earned an undergraduate degree to transfer to another school, enroll as graduate students, and play right away as long as they have some remaining eligibility and the new school offers a graduate area of study his old school doesn't have. It is almost unheard of for a school to refuse to release a player in this situation. Martelli, however, refused.
Last fall, O'Brien appealed his case to the NCAA, but the NCAA staff turned him down. An outside appeals committee upheld the NCAA's decision. On Tuesday, O'Brien resubmitted his appeal to the NCAA through his attorney. If the NCAA supports him during this round -- and that decision could come down at any moment -- he will be in uniform on Saturday.
"I got a 3.0 GPA in the fall semester and I've been pursuing an internship with a local real estate development company. So basically what we're trying to say is St. Joe's remarks that my move to UAB had nothing to do with academics is bogus," O'Brien told me during an interview Wednesday for my CBS Sports Network show, Courtside. "They should just push through the waiver and grant me the right to play the rest of the season with UAB. Hopefully it will be a speedy process."
Since O'Brien's story went national, Martelli and the rest of the Saint Joseph's administration have maintained a deafening silence. People have wondered -- assumed, even -- that there must be another side to this story. After all, Martelli is as well-liked and respected as any member of his profession. He has also served as chair of the National Association of Basketball Coaches' Ethics Committee. He must have a good reason to deny a student-athlete the opportunity to compete, right?
According to O'Brien, the answer is no. "There's no other side of the story," he said. "I've heard all of that talk, too. Really what it comes down to is Coach Martelli was mad that I left. He said I was being disloyal to him."
That is unfortunate and odd, especially given that O'Brien played a mere 7.2 minutes per game for the Hawks last season. Even more perplexing is the shifting, disingenuous explanations Saint Joseph's has given for not releasing him. Initially, Saint Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia issued a statement to SI.com leaving ultimate responsibility with the NCAA's appeals committee. This was an insult to the public's intelligence. The only reason O'Brien had to go to the NCAA in the first place was because Martelli was denying him the chance to play. All it would take is a simple e-mail from any member of the Saint Joseph's administration and O'Brien would be able to suit up for the Blazers immediately.
When I asked if Martelli or anyone else from Saint Joseph's could come on my show to explain their position, I was informed by a school spokesperson that the school was prevented from discussing O'Brien's case because of a federal law called FERPA, which makes it illegal for schools to release private information regarding its students. The St. Joe's rep even included a link to the U.S. Department of Education's official guidelines to this law. (You can read those guidelines here.)
However, when asked whether the school would discuss O'Brien's case down the road if O'Brien waived his privacy rights, I was told even if there were no considerations regarding FERPA, "the University still does not debate private educational decisions involving its students, past or present, in public. The University has stated all it will state publicly about the matter."
Finally, Saint Joseph's continues to emphasize this an "institutional decision," that it's not all about Phil Martelli. This is another insult. Does anyone really believe that if Martelli wanted to give Todd O'Brien a release that the "institution" would overrule him? This is Martelli's decision, period. If he isn't willing to explain it, he should at least be willing to own it.
To be fair, O'Brien was not entirely forthcoming in his story for SI.com. He failed to disclose that last season, he sat out four games because of his possible role in a teammate's theft of a laptop computer. O'Brien pointed out to me he was not suspended for the theft, but he sat out those games while the school gathered all the facts. When the investigation was done, O'Brien was cleared and allowed to play, while the teammate, Patrick Swilling, left school.
"I sat during the investigation, and when they had all their facts and everything straight, I was immediately reinstated," O'Brien said. "I don't really see how that's relevant to the current situation."
Indeed, even if O'Brien were guilty of stealing the computer, that would undercut Martelli's logic. If O'Brien was such a bad actor, why would St. Joe's want to keep him around in the first place? On the other hand, if he was a good kid and a good student, wouldn't the right thing be to let him play?
Moreover, when O'Brien initially started looking at other graduate programs to transfer into, Saint Joseph's gave several schools, including UAB, permission to recruit him. UAB hosted O'Brien for an official visit under the assumption that Saint Joseph's would grant him his release. That money came out of UAB's recruiting budget, but as far as I know Saint Joseph's has not offered to reimburse the program.
"Once they gave us permission to talk to the kid, we knew they were going to allow the kid to go somewhere. If they have problems with him going somewhere, don't grant him permission to speak to other schools," UAB coach Mike Davis said. "It's just amazing to me that it's 2012 and you can have people who are treating a student-athlete the way that they're treating him. Trust me, there's nothing else behind this. Whether he's a good kid, bad kid, just let him go."
Davis told me O'Brien is good enough to start for him, and he's devastated he might be losing that chance. "When he found out that he couldn't play, he cried like somebody died in his family," Davis said.
People who are loyal to Saint Joseph's have pointed out Martelli and the school went out of its way to make sure O'Brien graduated, that it cost the school scholarship money to put him through summer classes, and O'Brien put the program in a bind by stringing everybody along and then dropping the news during late summer when it was too late to replace him. O'Brien countered his parents offered to repay the school for those classes; that after he left Martelli signed Evan Maschmeyer, a 6-3 guard from Indiana; and he's glad he didn't make up his mind earlier. O'Brien believes if he had, Martelli would have tried to prevent him from graduating within the required four years.
Still, given the way Saint Joseph's is hiding behind FERPA, O'Brien would be smart to waive his rights under that law and force Saint Joseph's to defend its position. O'Brien told me that he has no problem doing that -- "I don't have anything to hide," he said -- but his lawyer, Donald Jackson, is advising him against it. "If he does that, they can start distributing his transcripts to the news media," Jackson said. "Would you want your kids' transcripts open for anybody in America to see? Just because you're an athlete doesn't mean you don't have a right to privacy."
That may be good legal advice, but it is a bad public relations strategy. If O'Brien really has nothing to hide, he should call St. Joe's bluff. At any rate, this case is not going to be decided by public relations. It is going to be decided by the NCAA, and if necessary by the same outside appeals committee that has already told O'Brien no. Despite his optimism, O'Brien's prospects are not great. Though he did post a good grade-point average and pursue his second internship in his chosen discipline, he and Jackson did not resubmit any new information to the NCAA. If he is turned down again, his only hope will be for Martelli to have a change of heart.
Unfortunately, that does not appear to be in the offing. Martelli and Saint Joseph's have dug in their heels. All they have to do now is keep quiet and wait things out. With only two months left in the season, they will not have long to wait. If that strategy succeeds, the school will have succeeded in hurting Todd O'Brien. But the real long-term damage will be to Phil Martelli's once-sterling reputation.