The timing couldn't be much worse for St. Joseph's basketball fans. Their celebration over winning the Holy War was cut short when former Hawk Todd O'Brien opted to "tell all" to Sports Illustrated. The 7-foot tall center was at St. Joes for two seasons after transferring there from Bucknell. After completing his studies, he decided to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
The Blazers were willing to give him a scholarship and let him do his post-grad work for free, but Phil Martelli won't sign his release, leaving him ineligible to play basketball, as far as the NCAA is concerned.
Under NCAA rules, a player who has finished his bachelors degree before exhausting his playing eligibility, can "transfer" to another school to begin graduate school without having to sit out a year as an athlete — as long as the graduate program isn't offered at his original school. That only works, however, if the school the player is leaving grants him a release.
Its a nasty dual standard, where the school is only required to honor a player's scholarship on a year-by-year basis, but the player can't leave a school without signed approval.
O'Brien was both the Hawks' leading rebounder in 2009-10, and their leading student, earning the team's academic achievement award. He wasn't an NBA prospect, but he was able to earn a degree in Economics and he wanted to get a masters degree in Public Administration and pursue a career in real estate development.
Last year he spent much of the season on the bench. He claims not to know why that was the case, but it seems to have been related to an incident involving a stolen laptop. According to reports at the time, O'Brien was peripherally involved after the fact, but did not steal the laptop. His case was handled by the St. Joes internal judicial process.
He eventually finished the season, but not as a starter and rarely seeing significant minutes in any game. Nonetheless, any incident that occurred last season ceased being St. Joseph's problem when O'Brien left campus.
"As to Mr. O'Brien's comments on the University's failure to grant him a waiver, the University does not discuss matters relating to current or former student-athletes consistent with our policy and commitment to student privacy issues," St. Joes athletic director Don DiJulia said in a statement.
"It is our understanding that the NCAA has denied Mr. O'Brien's appeal. Although the University was not a party to the NCAA appeal process and has not been informed of the reasons for the NCAA decision in this matter, the outcome of the appeal appears to have resolved all outstanding issues related to the appeal."
Of course, O'Brien wouldn't have needed an appeal if St. Joes had granted his release. While there may be more to the story, O'Brien's version paints a picture of a petty and vindictive coach in Phil Martelli:
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."
According to O'Brien, when the NCAA paperwork for his transfer was submitted by St. Joes, the school had checked a box for "yes" that they objected to him being eligible. In the follow-up box requesting a reason for the objection, Martelli or a member of the basketball staff wrote nothing.
Most schools let a player go if the player chooses, but NCAA rules allow them to "own" the rights to a young man or woman's college playing career for the entirely of their eligibility. Is it right to do that in an era where coaches freely switch jobs and schools freely change conferences?
Did O'Brien do something to deserve this? If so, St. Joseph's certainly isn't talking about it. Martelli won't be made available to the press on the issue and the university has refused to comment further on the matter.
O'Brien has become the first player to ever be "locked out" in the college game. For what? A petty revenge?
If college athletes are really students first like the NCAA commercials ask us to believe, then they should be treated like real students and not be penalized for changing schools, and certainly not for attending grad school. There is plenty to reform in college sports, but the system that allows a coach to hold a player's career hostage should be near the top of the list.