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  • Denial of NCAA Eligibility Waivers Continues to Spark Dispute

    Under NCAA rules, a player may avoid sitting out a year like the standard transfer by gaining an eligibility waiver, typically referred to as a hardship waiver. The NCAA will grant a waiver if it finds there are sufficient “mitigating circumstances” for doing so.  According to the NCAA, “[a] common circumstance is a student-athlete facing a serious issue or other personal hardship.”

    Recently, however, in a disappointing ruling, the NCAA affirmed its April decision denying Illinois tight end Luke Ford immediate eligibility for the 2019 season. Ford, ranked as one of the premier tight end recruits in last year’s cycle, transferred from Georgia to Illinois earlier this year so that he could play in front of his ailing grandfather.  As his father Tim Ford stated, “[h]e’s leaving the Taj Mahal of facilities [at Georgia] just so his grandpa gets a chance to see him play in person, before it’s too late.”

    The NCAA’s reasoning for denying Ford immediate eligibility was that his grandfather was not a part of his “nuclear family” and that the Illinois campus in Champaign is more than 100 miles from his hometown of Carterville. Ford, whose circumstances were not severe enough, apparently, will regain eligibility in 2020.

    In a set of 2012 rule changes, the NCAA added the 100-mile radius limitation for transfers returning to a school closer to home due to illness or injury to an immediate family member. The medical standard was also modified and now requires a transfer student to produce medical documentation of a medical condition to an immediate family member that is “debilitating and requires ongoing medical care.”

    These rules have been the basis of some unfortunate decisions. In February, former Coastal Carolina offensive lineman Brock Hoffman transferred to Virginia Tech so he could be closer to his ailing mother, who is suffering facial paralysis, hearing loss and eye sight issues following brain surgery.  According to Hoffman, the NCAA denied his waiver request because Virginia Tech is 105 miles from his home and his mother’s condition is improving.

    In another criticized decision, offensive lineman James Hudson, who transferred to Cincinnati after battling mental illness while at Michigan, was denied immediate eligibility because he never disclosed his illness to the Michigan administration. In a May 2019 tweet, Hudson stated, “Like many football players I was afraid to speak up about my depression not looking to look weak. Now the NCAA is telling me that my courage to step forward and speak about my issues was done too late and subjectively my ‘Circumstances do not warrant relief.’”

    In the 2017-2018 academic year, the NCAA granted the immediate eligibility requests of 45 of 51 (88%) football players. In the current 2018-2019 academic year, 41 of 60 (68%) requests have been granted.

    The facts upon which the NCAA decided to grant these waivers, however, do not appear well settled. This January, for example, high-profile quarterback Tate Martell transferred to Miami from Ohio State because of head coach Urban Meyer’s retirement, and the NCAA granted his waiver request. Last spring, quarterback Shea Patterson was granted immediate eligibility after transferring to Michigan because his original school, Ole Miss, received a postseason ban for NCAA violations.  Nonetheless, in December, Memphis basketball player Lance Thomas was denied immediate eligibility after transferring from Louisville.

    Attorney Tom Mars represented Ford, Martell, and star quarterback Justin Fields in their transfer requests. He summed up the process as follows:  “Requests for reconsideration and appeals of transfer waivers are like watching a football game in overtime,” he stated.  “Predicting the outcome at that point depends entirely on your personal bias, some hunches, and a lot of wishful thinking.”

    If you have any questions or concerns regarding employment or education related issues, please contact James G. Ryan at JRyan@CullenandDykman.com or at (516) 357 – 3750.

    Thank you to Steven Cecere, a summer associate at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for his assistance with this blog post.