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Orlando Sanchez’s Waiver Does Not Add Up

Orlando Sanchez, on St. John’s third attempt, was granted a waiver by the NCAA to regain one season of competition, which he will use in 2013–14. But exactly one season is a curious decision from the NCAA. Here is Sanchez’s timeline:

  • 2005: Sanchez leaves high school, moves to Spain.
  • 2009: Sanchez, now 21, plays in club games
  • 2010: Sanchez, now 22, graduates plays in national team game
  • 2010–2012: Sanchez plays for Monroe College
  • 2013: Sanchez enrolls at St. John’s

This was the stated NCAA criteria for the waiver:

The NCAA denied his request the first time, explaining that in order to receive a waiver, Sanchez would have to identify one “specific event outside of his control that delayed his collegiate enrollment.”

And this, from Sanchez’s attorney Robert Orr, is that one specific event:

“When a 17-year-old is told he has to drop out of school, move to Spain and go to work, that’s about as specific an event you can get,” Orr said. “He was told by the adults in his life he had to do this. Using legal language, it’s but for this he would have continued on his normal track.”

And this, from Bylaw 14.02.15, is the definition of a waiver:

A waiver is an action exempting an individual or institution from the application of a specific regulation. A waiver requires formal approval (e.g., an NCAA committee or a conference, as specified in the legislation) based on evidence of compliance with the specified conditions or criteria under which the waiver is authorized or extenuating circumstances.

The argument St. John’s made is that but for Sanchez being removed from high school by his family, he would have continued on through high school, graduated on time, and been eligible to play in college long before he turned 21. If this is such a critical intervening event that Sanchez deserves a waiver as a result, the starting point for a waiver should be that he be given back both seasons of eligibility.

Waivers, like many NCAA decisions, are often granted based on the “totality of the circumstances”. That means the NCAA adds up all the points for and against the waiver and sometimes comes down in the middle, partially approving the waiver. But once Sanchez’s case cross the threshold for a waiver, it is hard to find elements of the case that say he should get exactly one year.

It cannot be that he played in both the club games and the national team game. That is the event the waiver is targeting. If the three years Sanchez spent including one without his father in Spain is relevant, that is a harsh decision. If we agree that a kid was more or less forced to move to Spain, it is asking a lot of him to decide when and how to move back to the Dominican Republic on his own.

If Sanchez had played with basketball clubs and pursued the sport in Spain, that might argue in favor of a partially-approved waiver. Or if he would not have been on track to graduate on time even before leaving for Spain. All of the facts of the case and which the NCAA felt were most important are not known.

But as far as waiver cases go, more information is public than most. And the public information ads up to a black-and-white case: either Sanchez’s delayed graduation and enrollment was outside of his control or it was not.

There are three explanations for this waiver approval. St. John’s and Sanchez maybe misrepresenting the case in the public, although the NCAA has gotten very aggressive when that happens. Perhaps St. John’s underplayed their hand and only asked for one year. Or perhaps facing litigation from the school and the student-athlete, the NCAA came to a compromise.

It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever know the answer. St. John’s and Sanchez seem happy with the decision. The NCAA may announce the decision, but generally does so as soon as it notifies the school when it announces secondary infractions, reinstatement, or waiver decisions. And questions about how closely the NCAA follows its rules will continue.

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