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Friday, July 13, 2012
NCAA approves half of all hardship waivers

By Eamonn Brennan

One of the more confusing aspects of the NCAA's transfer policy -- a policy the organization is seeking to streamline, as our Dana O'Neil reported today -- is the hardship waiver. Simply put (by John Infante at the old Bylaw Blog), a hardship waiver is "for student-athletes who are compelled to transfer because of financial hardship, or an injury or illness to the student-athlete or a member of their family."

It feels like we've seen more and more of these hardship requests in recent seasons; it is not at all infrequent to hear news of a player wishing to transfer closer to home to be near a sick relative. For example, on Thursday, the NCAA denied Seton Hall transfer Sterling Gibbs' hardship waiver request. Gibbs had hoped to be eligible at Seton Hall as early as this season, citing the health of a family member as his primary reason for the move.

So, in the wake of Mark Emmert's discussion of transfers on this week's Outside the Lines, I thought it might be pertinent to a) see exactly how often the NCAA approves or denies hardship waiver requests and b) clarify how the NCAA actually decides such cases.

First, the numbers. What follows are the overall numbers for all hardship waiver requests -- including, but not limited to, requests related to the health of a family member -- in Division I athletics over the past five seasons (April 2007-April 2012).

Graduate transfer requests are fairly straightforward: If a player has graduated with eligibility and wishes to pursue a final year at a school that offers a post-graduate program not offered by his former school, the NCAA almost always approves the status. But undergraduate hardship requests are met with much more resistance:

Overall (all Division I sports):

Graduate student transfer waivers (past five years):
184 approved
20 approved with conditions
17 denied

Undergraduate transfer waivers (past five years):
288 approved
19 approved with conditions
324 denied

Basketball

Graduate student transfer waivers:
36 approved
1 denied

Undergraduate transfer waivers:
47 approved
47 denied

Football

Graduate student transfer waivers:
81 approved
3 denied

Undergraduate transfer waivers:
85 approved
86 denied

As you can see, the NCAA denies about half of all undergraduate hardship waiver requests, both in basketball and in football. Below are the basketball numbers from April 2011-April 2012 alone:

Basketball

Graduate student transfer waivers (2011-12):
4 approved
1 denied

Undergraduate transfer waivers (2011-12):
15 approved
17 denied

How many of those are related to the health of a family member? Unfortunately, we don't know: NCAA spokesman Cameron Schuh said the organization doesn't track or break down those types of requests within its hardship waiver data. The numbers above refer to all hardship requests, which can also include injury and financial hardship, as above.

Anyway, how does the NCAA decide cases involving the health of a family member? Again, the answers are cloudy. According to Schuh, there is no set criteria. Rather, every case is decided independently, on its own merits, based on specific circumstances.

"There are a number of factors that are considered with the criteria, some of which include the relationship of the individual to the student-athlete and proximity from transferring institution to where the individual lives/is being treated, to name a couple," Schuh said in an email. "Each case is reviewed and determined based on its own merits, so it would not be accurate for me to say if any one factor is weighted more than another nor if cases that look similar on the surface have different outcomes."

It's a tricky calculus. The NCAA must balance sensitivity to the family of a player, and that player's wish to be nearer an ill relative, while also ensuring the rule doesn't become (if it hasn't already) a cynically exploited loophole allowing players to transfer a year earlier than they might otherwise have done.

Without a clear line of demarcation, it's easy to see how that exploitation could happen. As the NCAA considers streamlining its transfer policies, and seeks to bring conferences together on a set of universal transfer requirements, it might also considering clarifying its stance on the various flavors of hardship waiver requests.