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NCAA Hints At New Stance on Abuse and Mental Health in Waiver Decisions

It will be hard for the NCAA to completely escape the subjectivity of waivers. A waiver means giving an athlete an exception to a rule. It means deciding that an athlete’s situation does not fit a rule that should apply to everyone. That normally requires taking into account subjective details while also making what was a rigid rule more nebulous and flexible.

For all its faults, the NCAA’s waiver system has the advantage of being able to handle lots of different situations. The way the NCAA handles those situations can also give glimpses into how the NCAA is approaching certain issues. Josh Smith’s waiver to play immediately at Georgetown and get back the season of competition he used in 2012-13 is a great example of this.

On its face, Smith’s transfer has none of the traditional hallmarks of a great waiver case. He moved further from home and nothing like a sick relative or other hardship has been reported. The NCAA’s comment on the case is vague, but does offer one clue:

An NCAA spokesman couldn’t shed much light on that because of student-athlete privacy concerns. In an email Thursday morning, he said only that the waiver was approved after a “thorough review” and the decision was based on “the totality of circumstances and **well-being of the student-athlete**.” (_emphasis added_)
That could be boilerplate but it gains added significance if the details tweeted by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman are true:

In an exchange with former Virginia Tech head men’s basketball coach and current ESPN commentator Seth Greenberg, Goodman offered some additional opinion about the case:

That makes sense especially after reading Sports Illustrated’s report by George Dohrmann from February 2012 about the UCLA program. Most of the criticism of Howland from the players interviewed for the story is about his lax discipline and babying of star players. Most of the comments about Howland being too harsh say that behavior was directed at managers and assistant coaches. This is most damaging accusation against Howland in the report regarding his treatment of players:

> Each of the players who spoke to SI said they found Howland socially awkward and disapproved of the verbal abuse they say he directed at his staff, the student managers and the weakest players.

What does not appear anywhere in the report is any accusation of physical abuse of student-athletes (like at Rutgers under former head coach Mike Rice) or any sort of discrimination or insensitivity (accusations that were levied by former players against Rice University).

The NCAA’s role in protecting players from abuse and ensuring the mental health of student-athletes should be priorities for the organization on the same level of governance reform and concussions. And there are indications that they are priorities, from the handling of the Rutgers and Rice transfers to the NCAA’s endorsement of mental health guidelines. All of this is tied together by the criticism of the NCAA’s transfer rules which says the penalties and limits placed on transfer student-athletes forces them to stay and suffer abuse by coaches.

So to the extent that the NCAA is addressing this issue, this is a positive change. The question now is whether the waiver process is the right way to do it. The best way to enact policy through the waiver process is to box that process in with guidelines. But is that possible with issues like mental health and coaching abuse? Permitting more flexibility in mental health diagnoses makes sense. But bringing defining abuse by coaches is impossible without essentially enacting conduct rules coaches must follow at all times.

If the NCAA members cannot come up with some guidelines and documentation standards, then these issues (rather than this one case) might tip the scales toward rewriting the transfer rules themselves. It might not solve the problem (allowing revenue sports to use the one-time transfer exception doesn’t help an athlete who transferred to a school with an abusive coach) but it could limit the number of waivers to the point where case-by-case determination is more appropriate.

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