This post is light on humor, and long. For me, that's not a good combo, but I hope it is enlightening.
In the past month the NCAA has denied a sixth year of eligibility to both University of Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk and Pitt University forward Michael Cook. The rulings, however, are not the problem. The problem is the systematic hypocrisy of the NCAA in these cases. Ben Mauk is hardly a sympathetic figure. He took advantage of a loophole to flee Wake Forest and start playing with Cincinnati without having to sit out a year. Now, he's fighting to take back the quarterback job from Dustin Garza, again. Garza is Aaron Rodgers to Mauk's Favre. Mike Cook suffered a knee injury just minutes before LeVance Fields]] hit a late three pointer in overtime to beat Duke in Madison Square Garden. Both players could be tremendous assets for their teams, but as it stands, both of their collegiate careers are over. The sixth year of eligibility has been a lifeline for many student-athletes, but with each approval or denial the contradictions mount up.
NCAA rules state that athletes have four years of eligibility and five years to use them. In the event of an injury, bylaw 14.2.4. serves as the baseline for requests of a sixth year of eligibility. A 2006 change to the rule now allows athletes to participate in up to thirty percent (up from 20) of their team's season and still be eligible for the hardship waiver. The Horizon League proposed the change and offered the following argument, "The general philosophy of seasons of competition is that a student-athlete should receive four complete seasons to compete in his or her sport." If only it were so simple.
In 2006, Eric Butler, a Kansas University defensive lineman was denied his sixth year of eligibility. In 2001, Butler was set to play football at Northwest Missouri State, but his then-girlfriend (now wife) got pregnant. Rules prevented them from keeping a baby in the dorms, so they returned home. Butler enrolled at a DeVry Institute, and in the eyes of the NCAA, started his five year clock (despite DeVry not having athletics). He then took a year off to take care of his new-born daughter. In 2003, he began attending Avila University, where he finally began playing college football. The following year he transfered to Kansas, where he was a walk-on. After only two years of playing, his five-year clock was up. His initial request for a sixth year was not granted, so he tried something radical. He claimed the pregnancy exception hardship. NCAA bylaw 18.104.22.168. states, "A member institution may approve a one-year extension of the five-year period of eligibility for a female student-athlete for reasons of pregnancy." Butler's appeal, claim of a Title IX violation, and attempt at a temporary restraining all failed. His playing days at Kansas were over.
Fast forward to two weeks ago and Pat Liebig, a West Virginia University defensive lineman was granted his request for a sixth year of eligibility. In 2004, he was a medical redshirt and in 2007, he withdrew from school. His father was ill and needed help running the family business. Liebig was praised for placing his family first and will be suiting up the Mountaineers this fall. It's hard not to interpret this as a moral judgment being passed by the NCAA. Being a good son is more noble than being a good father, particularly an unwed one.
Mike Cook was unfortunate, not only to have a knee injury, but also the timing of it. The Duke game was the team's eleventh of the season, and meant he was just past the thirty percent threshold for the hardship (34% to be exact). Thanks to a tremendous run in the Big East tournament, Pitt actually played 37 games, but the NCAA uses only scheduled games as the determining number, therefore the total was 32 (31 regular season games and 1 guaranteed post-season game). Cook has previously sat out the 2005-2006 season when he transferred from East Carolina. With three complete seasons and more than 30% of the way through the fourth, Cook's appeal was an open and shut case. The NCAA accepts Cook's redshirt because he transferred, but they are unwilling to accept Ben Mauk's redshirt, because he wasn't transferring and he wasn't hurt. When Mauk enrolled at Wake Forest it was understood he would redshirt. It's what Wake does. 42 of 44 players in their current two-deep depth chart have redshirted. The NCAA policy states, "[If] you attend a four-year college your freshman year, and you practice but do not compete against outside competition, you would still have the next four years to play four seasons of competition." That would make Mauk, who suffered a season-ending arm injury in the 3rd quarter of the first game of the '06 season a perfect candidate for the hardship waiver. The NCAA, however, is demanding proof that he sat out his freshman year due to injury. As a result Mauk is having to invent an injury and blame Wake Forest for poor record keeping, when all parties involved know he wasn't really injured. It's not fair to Mauk and it's not fair to Wake. The NCAA is not justified in punishing voluntary redshirts. Again, the policy is not across the board.
Washington State defensive end Matt Mullennix was recently granted his sixth year of eligibility. Like Mauk, he missed the 2006 season. His waiver was in part based on also getting injured in the 04 season. After four games, he was hurt in practice and out for the rest of the year. That season, Washington State went 5-6, meaning that Mullennix had played in 36% of the games, and therefore this season should not be a reason for an extra year of eligibility. Both Mauk and Mullennix missed one season, both started out as redshirts and Mauk is the odd man out, while Mullennix is a team leader for the Cougars. Mauk's use of a now rescinded rule to avoid sitting out while transferring seems to be the lone difference.
The NCAA has in recent years shown a shift from requiring two seasons lost to injury for a hardship waiver, to one redshirt season and one for medical reasons. Still, the rules remain ambiguous and arbitrarily enforced. The perfect example of their hypocrisy came in the courtroom proceedings of the dedicated father, Eric Butler. A lawyer for the NCAA claimed Butler's participation would harm the goal of ensuring a level playing against the other NCAA schools which do not field such athletes. The following year, Eric Butler was playing football again. This time for Washburn University, a NCAA Division II school.