St. Joe's won't release me to play at UAB and I don't know why (cont.)
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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