Illinois got some bummer news on Tuesday night.
Point guard Ahmad Starks, the guy who would have been the starting point guard for the Illini, was denied a hardship waiver that would have allowed him to play this season without sitting out a year following his transfer from Oregon State.
Starks has a sick grandma, and he transferred to be closer to home. Since the NCAA makes this possible, seems like a pretty open and shut case, right? And since the NCAA Subcommittee for Legislative Relief ruled against Starks, those pencil-pushers must be a bunch of insensitive jerks, right?
That's how Illinois fans probably feel right now.
That's how any fans of Program X feel when they don't get their guy eligible right away. It's hard to figure out the logic with some of these cases. When Rutgers' Kerwin Okoro got his appeal denied, it was a bad look for the folks at NCAA and they flipped their decision. It even changed the NCAA's rules.
But before you scream "unfair" in the Starks' case and any others, let's take a closer look at the rule and this particular situation.
These are the guidelines that must be met to qualify for a hardship waiver because of an illness to a relative, taken straight from the NCAA's release when the changes were made in Nov. 2012.
- The school presents medical documentation of a debilitating injury or illness to a student-athlete’s immediate family member that requires ongoing medical care. The previous standard had been "life-threatening."
- The student-athlete demonstrates he or she will be responsible for regular, ongoing caregiving responsibilities. The previous standard required the student-athlete to be the primary, day-to-day caregiver.
- The school is within a 100-mile radius of the immediate family member's home, which demonstrates the ability for the student-athlete to provide regular, ongoing care. Previously, no distance limitation was in place.
- The school to which the student-athlete is transferring must submit a statement from the athletics director and faculty athletics representative confirming that the student-athlete will be relieved of responsibilities to the team in order to care for the injured or ill family member, and that the coaching staff will support such a departure.
We do not know the specifics of Starks' grandmother's illness, and we do not know if he was going to be responsible for "regular, ongoing caregiving." But what we do know is the NCAA ruled against Starks because of distance.
Assuming Starks' family lived near the high school he attended, the distance from there to Illinois' campus is approximately 139 miles.
Starks is 39 miles from eligibility. That seems kind of ridiculous, huh?
Actually, I get it.
Unless we treat all transfers the same—something Duke coach Mike Mike Krzyzewski believes should be the case and I'm on board with—then there needs to be some sort of guidelines so the rule is not abused.
If the rule is that a player is going to be responsible for "regular, ongoing caregiving," then the drive back and forth should be a reasonable one. And if you review some of these cases where a waiver has been granted, they've met the 100-mile criteria.
Sterling Gibbs, as you'll notice, also had his waiver denied even though he was transferring to be closer to a sick relative and met the mileage requirement.
The guidelines are there to try to make sure the intent is to actually be close to an ill family member, but the NCAA opens itself up for criticism when subjectivity is involved.
Kelly Brooks, the NCAA staff liaison to the Division I Subcommittee for Legislative Relief, told Kevin Scarbinsky of The Birmingham News last year that the NCAA staff tries to determine whether the transfer is occurring because of personal or athletic reasons.
"Are you really going home to help with your family member's care?" Brooks said.
With Gibbs, he averaged 7.5 minutes per game as a freshman. At the time, he was behind Myck Kabongo and Texas also had signed another point guard, Javan Felix.
Now I'm not saying Gibbs was not truly transferring to be closer to his sick relative, but we don't know when that relative got ill or any of the specifics related to his caregiving role.
What we do know is it made sense for someone stuck on the bench to transfer to a school where he could get more minutes and conveniently happened to be closer to home. That's what the NCAA could have concluded.
Starks, on the other hand, was getting minutes. He was a starter. So he's obviously transferring for family reasons, right?
Well, look through the NCAA's eyes.
Illinois coach John Groce has had six players transfer in since he arrived in March 2012. He's obviously trying to speed up the process of becoming a winner with transfers. Starks is going from a losing program to one where he should get to the NCAAs.
And listen to Oregon State coach Craig Robinson (in the video below) shortly after Starks decided to transfer. Robinson said that he was surprised Starks left, but then he went on to say that he would have guessed at the end of the season that there was a 60-40 chance he would stay put.
A 60 percent chance a senior starter would stay? That's hardly convincing.
If Starks simply wanted to be close to home and still play in a big conference and meet the NCAA's guidelines, well, Chicago has DePaul and Chicago has Northwestern. Hard to believe rebuilding programs such as those would not take a point guard nine points shy of 1,000 for his career, which holds the record for threes made at his previous school.
It puts the NCAA in a no-win situation. The organization is attempting to be the judge and jury on intent. The guidelines are there to help, and Starks didn't pass one of the guidelines.
Of course, neither did Okoro. He did not have an ill family member. Instead, he lost his father and brother in the span of three months. And the NCAA realized that was a special exception.
Compassion, believe it or not, won in that case.
As for Starks, the NCAA's decision puts Illinois in a dicey situation. With Starks around for an extra year, the Illini will have one scholarship player too many, and they're also still in the running to land Cliff Alexander, one of the top big men in the 2014 class.
Groce was working under the assumption that Starks could get the waiver.
Get rid of the waiver process, and you can avoid those headaches. But as long as the rules stay the same, you cannot blame this particular subcommittee for following a set of fairly reasonable guidelines.