Commentary

Controversy swirls at Kansas State

Originally Published: May 6, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

Leticia RomeroAP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald, Rod AydelotteKansas State denied star freshman Leticia Romero's request to be released from her scholarship.

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Leticia Romero sits in a Starbucks, about 4,600 miles away from her home in Spain's Canary Islands. It's a gray afternoon, an average April day in Kansas.

For the Kansas State breakout freshman star, this is her first spring in the Little Apple. It also appears to be her last.

A 5-foot-8 guard, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Romero wears a purple Kansas State shirt. Which -- all things considered -- seems ironic. "This last month has been really frustrating," Romero said. "And right now, I'm in a position where I don't know what to do."

That position happens to be at the center of yet another NCAA-at-a-crossroads issue, as amateurism has become the story of the past college sports year. We've seen Oklahoma's Pastagate, Johnny Football's autograph scandal and Northwestern players' attempt at unionizing. But Romero's situation touches on another hot-button issue -- the NCAA's transfer rules.

Romero was a bright spot on a struggling K-State women's basketball team this past season, leading the Wildcats in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. But her coach, Deb Patterson, was fired after an 11-19 finish. Romero felt a strong connection with the old staff, which recruited her and helped her adjust after moving five time zones to Manhattan. She says she's tried to adjust to coach Jeff Mittie and the new staff. But ultimately, she decided a few weeks ago that she wanted to transfer. She went to the compliance office and asked for a release from her scholarship, expecting a noncontentious process.

Instead, she was denied a release -- an extremely unusual occurrence in women's college sports -- and has become a reluctant cause célèbre for those who insist NCAA transfer rules need reform. They see this in bigger-picture terms, citing it as part of an ongoing debate about college athletics: Do the NCAA and its member institutions have too much power, and student-athletes too little?

Few would disagree that the business-like pragmatism that has become the framework of Division I sports can create an environment where bylaws and procedures might trump compassion and communication, even when school officials have good intentions.

[+] EnlargeLeticia Romero
AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald/Rod AydelotteWith a release, Leticia Romero could transfer to a D-I school and receive scholarship money while sitting out the required year. Without the release, she would have to pay all her own expenses that year.

If student-athletes have a dispute with an institution, who is their advocate?

Kansas State president Kirk Schulz is on the steering committee that is attempting to make some wholesale changes to NCAA governance of college sports, and he now finds a compelling case in his own backyard. Romero -- teammates, coaches and fans call her "Leti" -- is 18 years old. She's an aspiring business major who has worked diligently on her English, going from "really bad" in her estimation when she arrived in the United States last August to fluent by immersing herself in the language.

She had been at Kansas State for less than a year when the coaching staff with whom she had bonded was replaced.

"I felt like my support was gone," Romero said. "Coming from so far away, one of the main reasons for me to be here was feeling happy. That was what changed. Then there were a lot of feelings going on inside me. I started to feel homesick -- and I hadn't been homesick the whole year."

Romero is dealing with uncertainty and distress. And K-State officials are facing criticism that is marring the launch of a new era for their women's basketball program under Mittie.

It didn't help when Romero, still mastering English, did interviews with the Manhattan Mercury and Topeka Capital-Journal and said the whole situation felt like "blackmail." That word alone rubbed Kansas State officials the wrong way and, Romero admits, probably wasn't the best choice. "I understand that people wouldn't use that word," Romero said. "But when I heard what compliance was telling me, it was like, 'They are trying to make a deal with me.' And I didn't understand why they would want to keep me if I wasn't happy there."

Kansas State athletic director John Currie, who hired Mittie, understandably was excited about giving the Wildcats a fresh start. Now, Kansas State is caught in a lingering controversy. Asked what Currie told her about why she was denied the release, Romero said they didn't meet during the process.

"But I'd be happy to talk to him anytime," she said.

The right to leave?

While transfers are generally discouraged by colleges, they're still relatively common. Diamond DeShields, the consensus national freshman of the year in women's hoops, is transferring from North Carolina. Her coach, Sylvia Hatchell, has said she doesn't really know why DeShields decided to transfer, but she still gave her an unconditional release.

Sometimes, though, a school granting a release will attach restrictions about where the student-athlete can transfer. Romero said she understands why a release might come with such stipulations, and would accept that without argument.

"Deny me the release for every school that they think is right to deny; I'm OK with that," she said. "But I don't know why they won't release me to ANY school in the United States.

[+] EnlargeJohn Currie
Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/MCT/Getty ImagesIn April, Kansas State athletic director John Currie tweeted that transfers are sometimes not granted due to "concerns about outside tampering."

"When Coach P was fired, I didn't believe in the change, but I accepted it. It's [Currie's] decision, and he has the right to fire a coach and hire another. But I think I have the right to want to leave, not liking the change."

With a release, Romero could go to another Division I school and receive scholarship money while sitting out the required year to transfer. But without the release, she would have to pay all her own expenses for that year, which she says she's not in a financial position to do as a foreign student. So her only viable option is to attend a junior college, where she could get scholarship money for a year, and then go back to Division I.

So, yes, Romero can leave -- but her options have been limited by Kansas State. Which has prompted criticism in media outlets, on Twitter and on message boards. Joshua Kinder of the Manhattan Mercury newspaper wrote, "Perception is everything. And right now, K-State looks a lot like a bully."

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas has posted several tweets on the issue, including, "It's past time for K-State to release Leticia Romero. Denying a transfer release to an unpaid, amateur student is unconscionable."

Longtime youth coach and national girls' basketball evaluator Mike Flynn told espnW he felt Kansas State's decision on Romero was "infuriating" and that he intends to make sure recruits nationwide know about it.

But what is Kansas State's side of this? It's not as if the school hasn't released other athletes. What is the issue with Romero?

The school had been largely silent, citing student-privacy concerns. However, a series of tweets from Currie on April 22 sparked media speculation that Kansas State felt Romero's transfer was being orchestrated by a member or members of the former coaching staff, and that led to the school's decision to deny her release.

When [coach Deb Patterson] was fired, I didn't believe in the change, but I accepted it. … But I think I have the right to want to leave, not liking the change.

-- Leticia Romero

Romero strongly denies the former coaching staff influenced her decision. Furthermore, she said no one at the university has explained why she wasn't granted a release. Her request was initially denied by the athletic department, then again by a university committee after an appeal hearing. She was informed of the latter decision April 17 in a one-paragraph email that listed no reasons for the denial.

"The first thing I saw about any possible reason was John Currie's tweets," Romero said.

Put together, the tweets -- posted April 22 to Currie's Twitter account -- essentially served as the university's statement:

"Student privacy prevents discussion of individual student issues. As athletics director, I have an obligation to all of our student-athletes and institution to ensure department and university procedures are followed. Generally speaking, on RARE occasions that we have denied a student-athlete transfer release, it has been because of concerns about outside tampering, undue influence by third parties or procedures not being followed in an honest and forthright manner."

That same day, Tim Fitzgerald of the Powercat Illustrated website wrote that K-State was concerned about "the suspicion that one of the former coaches is actually dangling Romero as an enticement to get a new job." Fitzgerald cited an anonymous source close to the K-State program, and referred to Romero as a "pawn."

"The old staff has never told me anything about leaving," she said. "It is my decision, and people are assuming I am being influenced. And that is not true.

"It's blaming people that shouldn't be blamed. That drives me crazy. I can deal with not having the release if that's how it has to be. But listening to the other stuff upsets me."

A long way from home

Romero wasn't looking to be a poster child for NCAA or institutional reform. She grimaced when asked if she has considered seeking advice from an attorney.

"I don't want to get into a fight with the university," she said. "I don't want to make it harder. I don't have anything against K-State; I really appreciate the opportunity they gave me. But the coaches were the ones who brought me here and believed in me."

That's at the heart of this issue. Student-athletes sign with universities. However the coaching staff is not only their principle contact point, but often the primary reason why a recruit picks a school. That was certainly the case for Romero, who relocated from Las Palmas -- a large city in the Canary Islands known for its near ideal weather year-round -- to the rural setting of Kansas State's campus largely because she clicked with the Wildcats' coaches.

[+] EnlargeDeb Patterson
Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsDeb Patterson was fired in March after 18 seasons as Kansas State's head coach.

Romero and her family were aided in the recruiting process by Xavi Lopez, who had played collegiately in the United States. Lopez, who is from Barcelona, was playing professionally in Spain when Romero's father contacted him and asked for some guidance on getting an athletic scholarship.

"I had to figure it out on my own when I came here, so I wanted to help them," Lopez said. "Her dad sent me a video of her, and I sent it to schools at the level I thought she could play at, which is BCS schools. She and her parents took it from there."

Many schools were interested in Romero. But Kansas State assistant Shalee Lehning was able to connect with her enough via video chats, email and social media to get on Romero's visit list when she came to the United States in late February 2013.

Kansas State was playing in Oklahoma on the day Romero arrived, but Lehning had stayed in Manhattan for Romero's visit. A snowstorm, though, delayed the return of the rest of the coaches and the team, so Romero didn't meet them. But the connection with Lehning was enough to sell Romero on K-State.

Plus, Romero felt Lehning, a former All-Big 12 guard at K-State and the WNBA, and Wildcats assistant Kamie Ethridge, a Wade Trophy-winning guard and Olympic gold medalist, would be excellent mentors as she aspired to eventually play professionally.

Two months after Romero committed, Kansas State reached out to Lopez and offered him a graduate-assistant position. Feeling his pro career was nearing an end, he accepted and then was able to help with Romero's transition.

Romero had an excellent season, one of the best for a freshman in K-State women's hoops history. She averaged 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists while being named second-team All-Big 12 and to the league's all-rookie team.

But the Wildcats finished 11-19 overall and 5-13 in the conference. Currie decided the program needed new direction, and for the most part it seemed Kansas State fans agreed.

After replacing Patterson, Mittie asked Lehning if she wanted to stay on, but she declined. Lopez said he spoke with Mittie, but that he didn't think he'd have much opportunity on the new staff. So Lopez also decided not to stay at Kansas State.

Lopez told espnW that he is hopeful of potentially joining one of the former K-State coaches elsewhere. Ethridge was hired as head coach at Northern Colorado on April 28.

"I'd like to continue my master's and maybe I can do it there," Lopez said. "I might go work for [Ethridge], but Leti is definitely not going along."

Both Lopez and Romero said that contrary to what K-State apparently thinks -- that he was trying to lure her away from the Wildcats -- Lopez advised her to stay and give Mittie more time.

"I guess they think, 'She's being influenced by him,' just because I was talking to him,'' Romero said of Lopez. "But I have nobody else here. He is like my dad here, and he has a great relationship with my parents. He just wanted to provide emotional support. He doesn't have bad intentions or anything.

"And if they are worried about me going with the former coaches, why don't they block them from my release? Say I can't play for any team they would go to. I am fine with that. I am not going to follow them."

Difficult path

A source close to Kansas State indicated the school was also unhappy with how Romero went about pursing the transfer, including the fact that she spoke with the media in between the original denial of the release and her appeal.

Flynn for decades has advised countless recruits about their college choices. He and others have pointed to Romero's situation as an example of how difficult it can be for a college student to navigate any dispute with an athletic department or university.

Romero might have made missteps in her desire to seek a transfer. But who was available to guide her through that process?

All this year, I haven't done anything bad. I passed all my classes, I worked hard every day. I loved playing for K-State. I enjoyed it so much, being here. But it just didn't feel the same when the coaches left.

-- Leticia Romero

Anyone she'd have talked to on campus is an employee of K-State, and ostensibly is serving the school's interests. Her parents are thousands of miles away. And her keeping contact with the people she'd been closest to and trusted the most -- members of the former staff -- led K-State to believe she wasn't making her own decisions.

Those who support NCAA reform, such as unions for student-athletes, would point to Romero as a good example of how a teenager can be left without an experienced guide who could have advised her of the potential pitfalls of seeking a transfer.

Romero will return home this summer to play with the Spanish national team program. She wanted the opportunity to essentially reopen her recruiting this spring, and pick a coaching staff with which she'd have a bond similar to the one she experienced initially at K-State. Now, she is in limbo, still hoping that somehow, she can get a release. If not, going to a junior college for a year might be her only feasible option, as she does not want give up on getting a degree.

"All this year, I haven't done anything bad," she said. "I passed all my classes, I worked hard every day. I loved playing for K-State. I enjoyed it so much, being here. But it just didn't feel the same when the coaches left."

At one point recently, Romero became so frustrated that she put down her thoughts in essay form. She wrote about how, during the long trip from the Canary Islands to Kansas last August, she listened repeatedly to the song "93 Million Miles" by Jason Mraz.

It's been eight months since then. Same song with a different feel. When it comes to my favorite part -- "Son, in life you're gonna go far, if you do it right you'll love where you are. Just know, wherever you go, you can always come home" -- it only makes me miss home more.

That part used to make me smile. I was excited, hoping that -- like the song says -- I would love where I was going. The best part of all is that I did. Somehow, things have changed.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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