The Waiting Game: NCAA’s rules make collegiate athletics difficult to navigate

First seen in The Montana Kaimin

By LJ Dawson & Henry Chisholm

Design by Lindsey Sewell

Photos by Hunter Wiggins

Ahmaad Rorie’s team lost early in the Washington State 2A Basketball Tournament his sophomore year of high school.

Rorie and his cousin, David Crisp, led Clover Park High School in Tacoma, Washington, to its first state title as freshmen the year before. But prior to the 2012 tournament, Crisp broke his foot and the Warriors were missing his usual 20 points per game.

Clover Park fell in the quarterfinals.

Rorie had already committed to the University of California, where Travis DeCuire was an assistant coach. DeCuire sat in the stands when Rorie’s team lost. Rorie was upset his team blew its chance for a repeat win the first day of the tournament.

After the game, DeCuire told Rorie that he would learn a lot about the young point guard during the consolation game.

“A guy that gets up the next day through adversity and performs and finds a way to win defines a winner. A guy that tucks his tail and comes out and gives a lackluster effort needs to learn how to win,” DeCuire said.

Rorie scored 48 points the next day.

DeCuire began recruiting both Crisp and Rorie for Cal after their freshman seasons. Since they played the same position, DeCuire had to pick one or the other. He eventually decided Rorie was the right fit.

Rorie’s relationship with DeCuire evolved during high school. He began calling DeCuire more often. When Cal lost games, Rorie would text DeCuire, “I got your back, I’ll be there soon.” They didn’t just talk about basketball, either. Over time, their phone calls began to cover the growing pains of teenage years.

“They could talk the game together, but then they also talked about life,” Rorie’s mother, Rhonetta Thomas, said.

The future looked simple for Rorie his senior year at Lincoln High School in Tacoma. After graduation, he would meet up with DeCuire in Berkeley to play Pac-12 basketball.

But Cal’s coaching staff had shaken up, and DeCuire took a head coaching job at his alma mater, the University of Montana. Rorie didn’t want to move to California without DeCuire and scrambled to find a new college to commit to with two months left of high school.

“It was a very tough period,” Thomas said.

DeCuire remembers it as a tougher period for him than it was for Rorie. All of a sudden, he was mentoring Rorie about where to go instead of preparing for his arrival to his own team.

“It’s a lot easier to convince someone to come play for you as opposed to help them sort through something that has nothing to do with you,” Decuire said.

Rorie chose the Oregon Ducks. The change was a shock. He’d prepared himself to work with DeCuire at Cal, but now he was heading somewhere where he didn’t know the coaching staff, school or other players.

Rorie had a breakout season as a freshman, starting 15 games, but he wanted to be back on the court with DeCuire. The coach had morphed into a mentor and a father figure for the young athlete.

He decided he was ready to move to Missoula and reconnect with DeCuire.

But Rorie and DeCuire wouldn’t be able to share a game-day court for another 18 months.

Sitting out a year, even if you know it’s coming, can be tough. Rorie said his redshirt year in Missoula was one of the toughest of his life, and it became even harder when the team started traveling to play for conference games. Every other weekend, he was left alone in a Montana winter.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) requires student-athletes who transfer to a new school to sit out for one year. It’s called an “Academic Year-in-Residence,” and doesn’t use up one of the student-athlete’s four years of eligibility, unless he or she has previously redshirted.

Michelle Brutlag Hosick, the NCAA’s associate director of public and media relations, said relegating transfer students to the bench will “help student-athletes adjust to their new school and ensure that their transfer was motivated by academics as well as athletics.”

The rule applies to athletes in five sports: football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and men’s hockey. Hosick said these sports were chosen because they are “historically academically underperforming.” These are also the five sports that bring in the most total revenue per year.

For years, the NCAA has resisted calls to allow student-athletes to receive a salary from their school or, at the very least, sign sponsorship deals. The organization claims student-athletes should be treated like amateurs and a free education is a fair wage.

But when Zion Williamson — a forward on the Duke University basketball team and a near-lock for the first overall pick in this June’s NBA Draft — sustained a knee injury in a nationally televised game in mid-February, he risked dropping in the draft and losing millions of dollars in salary as a result.

Once again, the NCAA’s amateurism policy found its way to the forefront of sports fans’ minds. Over the next week, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fortune and others weighed in with think pieces about the NCAA’s policy.

So when the NCAA holds big-money sports to a different set of rules than other sports, some eyebrows raise.

In the summer of 2018, the NCAA relaxed some of its rules regarding student-athletes who transfer. The biggest change was the NCAA’s pledge to build a transfer database, called the Transfer Portal. It allows all student-athletes who want to leave their current program, for any reason, to put their contact information online, so other coaches can recruit them. Prior to the Transfer Portal, college coaches were able to allow or disallow student-athletes’ transfer requests.

During a student-athlete’s senior year of high school, he or she signs a National Letter of Intent, declaring which school the student-athlete will attend. NLIs are legally-binding contracts, so student-athletes are not allowed to speak with representatives from other schools about scholarships after signing.

Since athletics programs had student-athletes under contract, it was common for coaches to bar students from transferring to schools within the same conference or state.

Now, schools aren’t allowed to block student-athletes who want to transfer, but student-athletes in big-money sports are required to spend a year on the bench after transferring before they’re allowed to compete.

“The rule is to keep people from transferring and make them put thought into their first decision,” Decuire said. “So there’s no impact on how I operate. For me it makes it easier because if you have guys who are fifth-year, you have a more mature basketball team.”

When players decide to transfer, DeCuire said it isn’t a shock for them to sit out for a season.

DeCuire thinks any player can benefit from a redshirt year. It gives them the chance to focus on academics and improve their skills that may not be strengths yet, and they have a chance to mature before being thrust into the spotlight.

Rorie developed his guard skills, including communication and leading the team during his year out. When he first arrived at UM, Rorie dominated on the practice court as an individual player, but didn’t talk enough. DeCuire told Rorie focusing on leadership would help him build a trust with his teammates when it was time to play together.

“It’s hard to get a true evaluation of yourself if you haven’t played a college game yet,” DeCuire said. “So coming out of high school, sometimes kids don’t use those redshirt years as well as someone like [Rorie, who] played at a high level prior to that.”

After playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game and two NCAA tournament games, Rorie had grown accustomed to big stages. But in Missoula, fans couldn’t watch what Rorie was capable of. Many didn’t know who he was. People back home in Tacoma couldn’t turn on the TV to watch game highlights. He felt forgotten.

Sammy Fatkin played her freshman season with the University of Arizona Wildcats.

She received scholarship offers from colleges across the western United States, including the University of Montana, in part because of her top-30 ranking among point guards in her high-school class.

Fatkin played in 28 of 30 games for the Wildcats and averaged about 12 minutes per contest. She carved out a role as a shooter, but that wasn’t the role she was hoping for when she moved to Tucson from Snohomish, Washington.

It wasn’t even clear that the role would still be there for Fatkin, since the Wildcats had recruited one of the best classes in the country and brought in a pair of transfers.

Fatkin decided to transfer. She wanted a chance to serve as a 6-foot point guard who could distribute the ball and defend three positions, not just take catch-and-shoot 3-pointers from the corner.

She chose Montana, which had made her shortlist the first time around, but she still had to complete her academic year in residence. She resigned herself to the bench and tried to make the most of her opportunity by spending more time in the weight room and helping her teammates in practice. It was her first season without basketball since grade school.

“Obviously, if I could play, I’d play,” Fatkin said in November. “I don’t think any kid wants to sit out a year.”

But then Lady Griz lost two guards to season-ending injuries in the beginning of the 2018-19 season, and over the next two months, they would lose two more. Montana needed a player and they had a healthy option watching the games in street clothes.

Fatkin and head coach Shannon Schweyen decided to apply for a waiver.

Last April, a few months prior to the decision to implement the Transfer Portal, the NCAA made another rule change. This one went largely under the radar.

The NCAA changed the wording of its rules regarding players applying for waivers to the academic year in residence policy. Before, the student-athlete’s new school had to show that the previous school had done something wrong, whether it was because he or she was treated poorly by coaches, the team faced a postseason ban for a rule violation or something in between.

Now, student athletes are eligible if “the transfer is due to documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete,” according to the NCAA. So something as simple as having trouble adjusting to a college could make a student-athlete eligible for the waiver.

“When it comes to mental health and health of the student-athlete, most people aren’t fighting it,” Schweyen said. “It looks bad if you’re not trying to encourage mental health.”

Since the rule was approved, NCAA data show 60 percent of men’s basketball players’ waiver requests have been approved, 77 percent of women’s basketball players’ requests have been approved, and 79 percent of football players’ requests have been approved. These include waivers for Griz basketball player Kendal Manuel, the Griz football coach’s son, Robby Hauck, and Lady Griz Sammy Fatkin.

From start to finish, Fatkin’s waiver process took about five weeks.

First, Montana needed to notify Northern Arizona that it intended to apply for a waiver. Then, Arizona had a chance to respond and the NCAA reviewed the papers.

Next, Montana had to put together a package illustrating Fatkin’s reason for leaving Arizona and why Montana thought she should be allowed to play. Then the NCAA reviewed the documents and sent them to Arizona. The Wildcats then had a chance to appeal Montana’s statements.

Previously, the negotiations between the two schools involved would often become contentious at this point, since the student-athlete’s new school generally had to prove the former school misstepped. For example, if a student alleged emotional abuse, the college would likely fight back to defend its reputation. The rule change makes this aspect easier to navigate.

It took time to complete each step of the bureaucracy, but Fatkin made her Lady Griz debut in late December, 2018.

Rorie, released from his commitment to the University of California due to the coaching changes, didn’t care about where he played in college. He wanted a coach who invested in him. DeCuire was already there, offering flexibility on the court and support off of it.

When Rorie first got to UM, he didn’t really care about school. He was focused on basketball and trying to play professionally. He failed a few classes despite believing he’s “pretty good at a lot of subjects.”

DeCuire explained to him that a degree would give him something to fall back on, if the NBA doesn’t work out. “He just told me, if I can’t get good grades, my teammates aren’t going to trust me,” Rorie said.

DeCuire’s coaching style is unique; while most college coaches ask for military-like uniformity from their players, DeCuire wants his players to be individuals. He doesn’t fit his athletes into his system, he builds game plans based on his athletes’ abilities.

The product of DeCuire’s strategy is the top team in the Big Sky Conference, a team so unique that it could have a chance to catch a basketball powerhouse off guard in the national tournament. The Grizzlies’ defensive anchor in the paint has made 10 of his last 15 3-pointers, and their two-time player of the week post scorer is only 6-foot-5.

Three and a half years after Rorie transferred to UM to play with Decuire, the two are headed to Boise, Idaho, to attempt their second Big Sky championship title in a row.

While the transfer process is becoming simpler and less painful for student-athletes, they still aren’t afforded the same loyalty from colleges the NCAA demands them to show their teams.

Katie Mayhue was supposed to be a Beaver.

She earned a basketball scholarship from Oregon State during her sophomore year of high school. The Beavers had just finished the best season in program history with a Final Four appearance. They lost to the Breanna Stewart-led University of Connecticut Huskies in the national semifinal.

The offer was the first one Mayhue received from a major school, and as a sophomore, she verbally committed to play at Oregon State after graduating from high school. When her sophomore year ended, her family relocated from Casper, Wyoming, to Albany, Oregon, so she could be a quick 15-minute drive from campus for her last two seasons of high school ball.

For the next year, everything went well. Mayhue earned a spot on the Adidas USA Select Team for the summer of 2017, following her junior season. Four top-40 prospects were on the roster and all 10 girls on the team signed to play Division I basketball at colleges across the country.

But over the summer, she lost touch with the coaching staff at Oregon State. After talking on the phone a few times per week for most of her commitment, Mayhue didn’t hear from her future coaches for three months.

In October, a month before signing day, Mayhue called to make sure everything was alright. She was told that the program no longer had a scholarship for her. The coaches had found another point guard, Destiny Slocum.

Slocum had decided she wanted to play closer to her home in Idaho after spending her freshman season at the University of Maryland. She’d won the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association National Freshman of the Year award and was an All-American in high school.

Oregon State offered Slocum the scholarship and, all of a sudden, Mayhue was without a plan.

“I was kind of at a loss with everything,” Mayhue said.

Mayhue had committed to Oregon State so early that other schools didn’t offer her a spot on their teams. With it being so close to signing day, most schools had already handed out all of their scholarships.

Luckily, Mayhue had played with Jordyn Schweyen, the daughter of Lady Griz head coach Shannon Schweyen, a couple of summers prior. Mayhue asked Jordyn for her mom’s phone number and gave her a call. She asked if Montana had a scholarship for her and Shannon said she could make it work.

The next weekend, Mayhue visited the University of Montana campus. A week later, she sent a plaque with pictures from the visit and a note confirming her commitment.

“Life went on,” Mayhue said.

Mayhue started eight games for the Lady Griz as a freshman but sustained a season-ending injury in early February of this year. She’ll be back next season.

DeCuire built a new culture for Griz basketball, and Rorie has studied how that’s happened.

“[DeCuire’s] leadership has been good. It’s definitely rubbed off on me and me trying to be a leader on this team,” Rorie said.

For Rorie, that means using his experience as a redshirt transfer to talk his teammates through their time watching from the sideline.

Tony Miller is in his first year with the Grizzlies after spending two seasons at Seattle Pacific University. He’s a sharpshooting forward who could contribute to Montana’s postseason run, if he wasn’t redshirting this season.

“It’s frustrating because you’re working out daily and then come here and sit and watch games. It’s so tough, but for right now, I’m just trying to be patient,” Miller said. “My time is coming.”

Miller credits Rorie, as well as redshirt senior guard Donaven Dorsey, with helping him get through the season. Rorie said the most important message he tries to convey is to keep working out and to stick with the team. The worst thing that can happen is to become isolated.

“It’s hard,” Rorie said. “I have been just telling them to stick to the script, stick to the plan.”

The script worked for Rorie. He struggled with not playing during his redshirt year and battled the isolation that comes with being the one player not roadtripping with the rest of the team.

But now, as a fifth-year senior, Rorie is preparing for one final chance to make noise in the postseason. It’s a chance he wouldn’t have received if he’d burned a year of eligibility during his first year in Missoula.

He’s also a month or two away from starting his push for the NBA. Maybe sitting out a year and learning from the sideline is why he made the leap from talented college point guard to NBA prospect, or maybe it just pushed his timeline back a year. But Rorie isn’t worried about the what-ifs or what June’s draft may have in store.

“All that stuff will come later on,” Rorie said. “I just really want to be bought into this and just enjoy the rest of my senior year. I don’t want to look back and have any regrets.”