The NCAA (and St. Joseph’s) Strikes Again: The Case of Todd O’Brien

Josh Wright —  19 December 2011

The NCAA recently denied Todd O’Brien’s appeal to make use of the Grad Student Transfer Exception — which would allow O’Brien, who graduated St. Joseph’s with a degree in economics, to continue playing basketball while pursuing a graduate degree in Public Administration at University of Alabama-Birmingham.  St. Joe’s, apparently at the behest of a college basketball coach who appears to have has lost sight the purpose of college athletics, refused to allow O’Brien the exemption.  Its permission is required (and has apparently never been withheld in these circumstances).

O’Brien tells his story in a recent column at CNN-Sports Illustrated:

My name is Todd O’Brien. I’m 22 years old. In 2007, I became the first person from Garden Spot High (located in Lancaster County in New Holland, Pa.) to earn a Division I basketball scholarship. I attended Bucknell University from 2007 to 2008, where I made the Patriot League All-Rookie team. After the season, I decided the school and its basketball program weren’t the right fit for me. I wanted to follow the footsteps of my uncle Bruce Frank, a former Penn player, and play in the Big 5. I transferred and was given a full scholarship to play basketball at St. Joe’s for coach Phil Martelli. After sitting out in 2008-2009, I earned the starting center spot for the 2009-2010 season. Though our team struggled, I was able to start 28 games and led the team in rebounding. I also was the recipient of the team’s Academic Achievement award for my work in the classroom.

Entering the next season, I had aspirations of keeping my starting role, increasing my productivity on the court, and most importantly — winning more games. Off the court my goal was to continue getting good grades and to position myself to earn my degree studying Economics.

Things didn’t work out that way for O’Brien as the team struggled and St. Joe’s Coach Martelli opted to play younger players.  O’Brien increased his focus on academics, including graduate school options:
As the season went on things did not improve much, but on a brighter note I entered my last semester as an undergrad. On top of my regular classes, I had picked up an independent study internship at the Delaware County Municipal Building, where the focus of my study was on local economics.Though I still needed to pass three summer courses to officially earn my degree, I was allowed to walk in graduation that May. At the urging of my parents, my Economics advisor and other family friends, I began looking at graduate programs for the fall semester.

O’Brien ultimately decided he would take the summer courses, graduate early, and find a suitable graduate program.  Here is where things get ugly, according to O’Brien’s account:
I met with Coach Martelli to inform him that I would not be returning. I had hoped he would be understanding; just a few weeks before, we had stood next to each other at graduation as my parents snapped photo. Unfortunately, he did not take it well. After calling me a few choice words, he informed me that he would make some calls so that I would be dropped from my summer class and would no longer graduate. He also said that he was going to sue me. When he asked if I still planned on leaving, I was at a loss for words. He calmed down a bit and said we should think this over then meet again in a few days. I left his office angry and worried he would make me drop the classes.
A few days later I again met with Coach Martelli. This time I stopped by athletic director Don DiJulia’s office beforehand to inform him of my decision. I told him I would be applying to grad schools elsewhere. He was very nice and understanding. He wished me the best of luck and said to keep in touch. Relieved that Mr. DiJulia had taken the news well, I went to Coach Martelli’s office. I told him that my mind had not changed, and that I planned on enrolling in grad school elsewhere. I recall his words vividly: “Regardless of what the rule is I’ll never release you. If you’re not playing basketball at St. Joe’s next year, you won’t be playing anywhere.”
St. Joe’s never agreed to sign the release.  O’Brien appealed to the NCAA.  Here is his account:

With no movement on Saint Joseph’s end, my faith was left in the hands of a five-member NCAA committee. I pleaded my case, stating how St Joe’s was acting in a vindictive manner and how the NCAA must protect its student-athletes. When it was my turn to speak, I talked about how much it would hurt to lose my final season of college basketball, not just for me but for my parents, sisters and all of my relatives who take pride in watching me play. To work so hard for something, waking up at 6 a.m. to run miles on a track, spending countless hours spent in the gym shooting, and to have it all taken away because a head coach felt disrespected that I left in order to further pursue academics? It’s just not right.

Later that day the NCAA contacted UAB to inform the school that my waiver had been denied. The rules state that I needed my release from St. Joe’s, and I didn’t have it. I am the first person to be denied this waiver based on a school’s refusal. I was crestfallen. The NCAA has done a lot for me in life — I’ve gotten a free education, I’ve traveled the country playing basketball, and for all of this I am thankful. But in this instance I think they really dropped the ball. To deny a grad student eligibility to play based on the bitter opinion of a coach? You can’t be afraid to set precedent if it means doing the right thing.

My lawyer continues to plead to St Joe’s to release me, but the school no longer will discuss the issue. When my parents try to contact Coach Martelli, Don Dijulia, or President Smithson, they hide behind their legal counsel. When we try to contact the legal counsel, they hide behind the NCAA. A simple e-mail from any one of them saying they no longer object to me playing would have me suited up in uniform tomorrow, yet they refuse.

So here I am, several states away from home, practicing with the team every day, working hard on the court, in the weight room and in the classroom. I keep the faith that one day (soon, I hope) somebody from St. Joe’s will step up and do the right thing, so if that day comes I’ll be ready. I just finished my first semester of grad classes, and I enjoy it a lot. When somebody asked if I would be leaving to try to play overseas now that I’ve been denied the ability to play here, I said no. I said it before and I’m sticking to it — I’m here to get a graduate degree.

Whenever I get frustrated about the situation, I think back to something my mother told me on the phone one day. “This isn’t the end of basketball. Basketball ends when you want it to, whether that’s next year, in five years, or in 50 years. You control your relationship with the game, and nobody, not St. Joe’s, not the NCAA, can take that away from you.”

But right now, they sure are trying to.

If O’Brien’s account is even close to accurate, St. Joe’s — and especially Coach Martelli — should be ashamed of themselves.  As should the NCAA. The latter is nothing new.  But Coach Martelli and St. Joe’s has the opportunity to correct this — and they should.
Good luck to O’Brien.

4 responses to The NCAA (and St. Joseph’s) Strikes Again: The Case of Todd O’Brien

  1. 
    Russell Bergevine 19 December 2011 at 3:15 pm

    I concur. They should be ashamed of themselves; and I told them such in my letter to them today. I sent it to the Coach, AD, and the president.

    My letter:

    Your petty refusal to release Todd O’Brien is an embarrassment for your program and a black eye for each of you. The young man is on to graduate school – he’s not leaving during his undergraduate career to go play for a conference foe. Give him the release needed. Your position in not affording him the life opportunity will come back to haunt your program tenfold. For a quarter century I’ve held a high opinion of Coach Martelli. It only takes a moment to ruin a reputation built over years. If you do not release this young man, people around college basketball will consider you all a pariah and that includes potential recruits. This will be a black mark on your program for years to come
    If Coach Martelli said those things to this young man then he should be terminated. This is not a pissing contest coach.

    Respect gentlemen. Integrity, respect. Doing the right thing.

    I challenge all three of you…
    Put your egos aside and start acting like a man. Which of you is going to stand up and be counted as doing the right thing?

    Many of us have sons and daughters the same age as this young man who are fighting in a war zone overseas every day. Do you think the American public cares about your personal egotistical feelings? We don’t. We care about young men and women who are the future leaders of our great country. The ones doing the right thing – the 22 year olds who are soldiers and the ones working hard to go to graduate school to better themselves. The kind of men and women this country needs more of and the kind of young people we need to support. You have nothing to gain in your refusal to release this young man You have everything to lose. Give him the release he needs to play basketball and be a net positive positive influence in the world. Narcissism is not attractive. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    Lead by example. You are all old enough to know this.
    Who among you is going to be a man about this?
    Sign the release and start acting like a man.

    Russ Bergevine
    Georgia Tech ’87
    Providence College ’90
    Suffolk Law School ’13

    Coach Martelli, Don Dijulia, or President Smithson
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/basketball/ncaa/12/19/todd.obrien/1.html

  2. 

    What O’Brien fails to reveal was that he was also suspended by St. Joe’s last year for being involved in stealing laptops with another player. The other player was kicked out and O’Brien was allowed to stay.

    • 

      Let’s assume that’s true — and I have no reason to doubt it — what is the possible rationale it provides for sticking it to the kid by not allowing him to transfer to pursue a graduate program? Best case, the argument is that Coach Martelli feels personally spurned because he stuck his neck out for O’Brien to keep him on the team and now he is transferring to another school after earning his degree. That doesn’t make sense to me. If O’Brien was worth sticking one’s neck out for to the Coach, I would personally think the school and (especially) the Coach happy to send this student-athlete on his way to better himself with an opportunity not available at St. Joseph’s.

  3. 

    I think the general public should let Dijulia and the St. Joe’s sponsors and advertisers know how they feel. The fact that they got him through a transfer is all the more embarrassing. They essentially poached him the same way any player comes and goes.

    dijulia@sju.edu —> let him know about his handling of this…and how mature it was.