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Posted: Monday December 19, 2011 11:50AM ; Updated: Monday December 19, 2011 2:51PM

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

Story Highlights

Todd O'Brien applied for grad student waiver, but St. Joe's wouldn't release him

O'Brien is on basketball scholarship at Alabama-Birmingham, but is ineligible

NCAA denied O'Brien's appeal and he's at mercy of St. Joe's, which won't budge

By Todd O'Brien, Special to SI.com

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Todd O'Brien graduated from Saint Joseph's this summer and is taking graduate classes at UAB, but his old school won't give him a release so he can play.
Todd O'Brien graduated from Saint Joseph's this summer and is taking graduate classes at UAB, but his old school won't give him a release so he can play.
Statement from Saint Joseph's
"As to Mr. O'Brien's comments on the University's failure to grant him a waiver, the University does not discuss matters relating to current or former student-athletes consistent with our policy and commitment to student privacy issues. It is our understanding that the NCAA has denied Mr. O'Brien's appeal. Although the University was not a party to the NCAA appeal process and has not been informed of the reasons for the NCAA decision in this matter, the outcome of the appeal appears to have resolved all outstanding issues related to the appeal."
-- Don DiJulia, associate vice president/athletic director

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."

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