Last week I sketched a template for how various major sporting entities have been dealing with a series of embarrassing and shameful episodes. In the matter of the handling of the transfer of Women’s basketball star Daisha Simmons, the University of Alabama initially acted disgracefully in blocking Simmons’ requested waiver. Then, when confronted with withering criticism for its actions, ‘Bama backtracked, all while managing to sound unrepentant, clueless and obnoxious. Simmons graduated from Alabama in December of 2013, but still had remaining eligibility to play basketball. She’d wanted to enroll in an MBA program at Tuscaloosa, but was denied admission. In the spring of 2014, she took four non-degree relevant classes to maintain her eligibility to play. But at the conclusion of the spring semester, she informed the coaching staff that she wanted to transfer to Seton Hall, in New Jersey, where she’s from and where her family still lives. It’s worth pausing here to note that we are already in weird territory. Why, after all, should someone who has already graduated need a waiver to transfer to another school? We’ll come back to that in a moment. Simmons’ mother suffers from arthritis. Her mobility is compromised and she has difficulty, according to Simmons, in getting up and down stairs. Simmons’ brother is also on dialysis, which requires three trips a week to the facility that administers his treatments. Further, Seton Hall has an MBA program that was prepared to accept Simmons. For these reasons, she wanted to move back home. But because she had a year of eligibility remaining, if she wanted to continue to play college basketball, which she did, ‘Bama would need to give her permission.
Normally, it should be pointed out, this is a pro forma exercise for a college graduate who seeks enrollment in a program that her existing institution doesn’t offer. It was under these circumstances that power forward Justin Knox transferred from ‘Bama to UNC’s basketball program for his final year of eligibility in 2010. But because Simmons had previously transferred (from Rutgers to Alabama), NCAA rules required a more rigorous appeals process to receive the waiver. Without it, Simmons could still go to Seton Hall, but she would have to sit out a year, ineligible to play. So, naturally, Alabama rejected Simmons’ request. Because of the aforementioned firestorm that ensued, the university backed down. Athletic Director Bill Battle announced yesterday that it would be granting the waiver after all. In justifying the original decision, Battle wrote, in part: “Much of the University’s original decision not to endorse a waiver was based on the fact that Miss Simmons declined to provide any information supporting her reasoning for seeking a waiver. This was despite requests to obtain documentation verifying hardship to support a waiver request. Miss Simmons was told repeatedly of the requirements needed to obtain the waiver, as well as how such requirements were needed to justify the institution’s endorsement of such a waiver. She refused to provide this, despite several opportunities and requests to do so.
To put it politely, this appears to be complete and utter bullshit. Simmons herself has said this claim is “100% false.” And she’s provided evidence to back up that claim. University officials acknowledge, in the linked email thread, having received “documentation” from Simmons in support of her appeal. For Battle’s statement to be true – that Simmons “declined to provide any information” – we would have to believe that the documentation the university admits Simmons did submit, said something like, “because I feel like it.” In addition to apparently lying about what Simmons did and didn’t tell the university, Battle wrote: The University’s decision not to support the waiver was a small part of the facts the NCAA reviewed but, ultimately, the NCAA looks at the entire narrative supplied by the student and the applicant institution in determining whether or not to grant a waiver. But the NCAA says that the home university’s endorsement of the waiver is the key determining factor in the approval process, and this is certainly consistent with what is commonly reported in other transfer cases. So, that’s strike two for Battle. Finally, Battle insisted that: “The University of Alabama emphatically supports head coach Kristy Curry and her staff. Throughout this process they have maintained a high level of integrity and ethical behavior.” See guideline No. 6 from the Crisis Management tool kit for this one. Battle didn’t follow every step in the process, since he never felt compelled to apologize in any way for the evident distress he was causing Simmons and her family. But why did the university reject her claim? Battle’s nonsense aside, the coaching staff, including head coach Kristy Curry, were mad that Simmons waited so long to tell them of her intentions, leaving them unable to plan to fill her spot on the roster (though the team did dismiss four scholarship players in the spring, including one to whom it had originally committed to for four years.
The university only grudgingly agreed to honor that scholarship commitment). According to independent reports, Coach Curry was so mad at Simmons that she vowed to stop her from playing professionally if Simmons transferred and also questioned why Simmons needed an MBA in the first place. Let’s pause here to applaud yet again the NCAA’s commitment to the education of its “student-athletes” and their overall well-being, not just their ability to help a coach win games. Curry, by the way, makes $400,000 a year. It appears, in sum, that Curry and the university acted as they did mainly out of spite, petulance and arrogance. What exactly was the high level of integrity and ethical behavior to which Battle referred? I have no idea. And I’m guessing he doesn’t either. They’re just words – inane blather from a man incapable of being “accountable,” to use athletics’ favorite term, for his own actions. There’s a bigger picture issue here, of course. NCAA athletes, in essence, have no rights. They serve at the whim of their coaches and athletic departments. And spare me the garbage that that’s because the Daisha Simmons’ of the world are already getting such a great deal from their university. You know what? So do the Kristy Currys. But she’s still going to be free to jump at a better opportunity, whenever she’s offered one. That college athletes deserve at least minimal protections from arbitrary decisions by their employers (and please don’t tell me the university sees Simmons as anything but) ought not to be a matter of serious debate anymore.