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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Brand on the spot

For fairness' sake, case of FSU's Romero should be revisited

Posted: Sunday January 11, 2004 3:07PM; Updated: Sunday January 11, 2004 7:35PM
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Entering his second year on the job, NCAA boss Myles Brand is championing himself as a friend of the student-athlete, saying Saturday he wants to make sure players get the "benefit of the doubt'' on eligibility issues and the like.

Well, that's music to the ears of Florida State officials, who, shall we say, are putting him on the spot.

The school is taking the NCAA on over Diego Romero, a 6-foot-10 junior forward ruled permanently ineligible in November. If what happened here is what Brand means by flexibility, then you wonder if word hasn't filtered down to underlings and staff.

Romero, a product of Argentina who played two years at Lon Morris (Texas) College, is caught in a snafu after the NCAA toughened its amateurism rules this fall. The NCAA declared foreign players permanently ineligible if they had signed a contract with a professional club team, which Romero did as a teenager -- though he received only minimal expenses. Up till then, such players were routinely reinstated after serving an eight-game suspension (Romero has sat out the first 14 games of the season).

Here's the goofy catch: Foreign athletes who enrolled at NCAA schools two years ago can continue playing this season. Only those like Romero, who initially enrolled in a juco (there are thought to be at least four others), are history unless Brand's friendlier NCAA does an about-face.

"This is about the NCAA living up to the new credo that the president of the NCAA, Myles Brand, has put out as far as flexibility and giving the benefit of the doubt to the student-athlete,'' said FSU associate athletic director Bob Minnix, a former NCAA staffer. "That is what this case is all about -- it is about fairness.''

FSU contends Romero should be "grandfathered in'' under the old rule. And before the annual NCAA convention shuts down Monday, the Division I Management Council has agreed to revisit the rule as it pertains to Romero.

Brand is well aware of the FSU challenge to his words, adding: "What we are doing now, which we would have never done in the past, is reviewing in the management council that particular case to make sure we treat that student-athlete fairly. In the past, we would never have given it such a review.''

That's a damning admission about the old way of doing business. And why are there no minutes from the original management council meeting? Why aren't such rulings made in open session? Why is there no record of a decision on how the rule affects juco players? What's up with treating foreign juco players differently, anyway?

If the story FSU tells is true, Romero is a kid who played by the rules only to get lost in a rules snafu. Like most top foreign teenagers, he signed an underage agreement with a club team. He initially enrolled in a juco rather than a four-year school to improve his English and finished last semester with a 3.0 GPA.

"Somebody told me the [amateurism] rule was changed when I was in junior college, but I was in the United States already so no way it can affect me,'' Romero recalled. "Questions came up about my paperwork, and I didn't understand why this was happening. I did everything everybody told me had to do. I just think this is not fair for me. This is what I want changed.''

What's amusing is that FSU sent me about 500 pages of a bound report on Romero. These are the same folks who last year brushed off gambling allegations surrounding quarterback Adrian McPherson and purposely took no notes to avoid having to make them available under Open Records law.

That aside, if the facts are as FSU and coach Leonard Hamilton say they are, look for Romero to get a second chance. If not, the NCAA would be advised to do a better job stating its case.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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