Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When one side talks and the other one doesn't...

...then what are you to do as a journalist?

There's an interesting story developing between St. Joseph's University and one of its former players. Todd O'Brien graduated from St. Joe's and is now taking graduate classes at Alabama-Birmingham. NCAA rules allow an athlete to transfer without sitting out one year in situations such as O'Brien's -- people with athletic eligibility remaining who are attending graduate school at a different institution because it offers a graduate degree that the player's undergraduate institution doesn't.

However, the player's former university must release him or her from the scholarship they can still use as a student-athlete.

For some reason, St. Joe's is not.

That's where stories such as this one from CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel important to examine. Doyel acknowledges that he is writing an incomplete report because no one from St. Joe's is prepared to step forward and tell that institution's side of the story.
Don't you see? We're missing something here, something huge. We have to be, or Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli is the most unreasonable coach, the cruelest SOB, in the country. Martelli is a longtime coach with a track record, and while reviews on him are mixed -- some love the guy, some don't -- his track record says he's not unreasonable.
He's not a cruel SOB.
Yet he's being one here, in this Todd O'Brien story. So what are we missing?
We're missing the Saint Joseph's side. Nothing much, right? Just half the story. We know what O'Brien says. He has taken his case public, including appearing on a podcast here at CBSSports.com on Tuesday. That came one day after Sports Illustrated gave him a 2,000-word forum, which O'Brien used to paint Martelli as a monster who responded to O'Brien's transfer request this summer by threatening to "make some calls so that I would be dropped from my summer class and would no longer graduate."
Without a diploma, see, O'Brien couldn't transfer and play right away. A coach who would do what O'Brien accused Martelli of doing is a coach who should be fired by the school, then sued by the kid.
Neither has happened.
Does that mean O'Brien is lying about Martelli's threat? Not necessarily. I'm just saying neither has happened. Saint Joseph's hasn't fired Martelli, and O'Brien hasn't sued him.
In that first-person account in Sports Illustrated, O'Brien attempts to make a logical case for why he is at UAB. But he admits why he can't play is baffling him.
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."
Coach Martelli, based on O'Brien's account, clearly wasn't joking. UAB and O'Brien found that out when St Joe's athletic officials refused to support O'Brien's request to play elsewhere.
The administrators at UAB had experience with players joining as grad school exceptions in the past, so they were familiar with the process. To our surprise though, when Saint Joseph's turned in the requested paperwork to the NCAA about my transfer, school officials had selected "Yes" to the the question "Do you object to Todd O'Brien being eligible for competition this season?" Under the part that said "If yes, then why do you object" there was no reason.
Confused, UAB contacted Saint Joseph's to ask why they had done this. Turns out, Coach Martelli was adamant to the athletic director that I should not be allowed to play because I had "wronged him." A few days later, St. Joe's submitted a letter saying my move to UAB was "more athletic then academically motivated." For them to say it was not academic is foolish; I did an internship in the exact area of study, and Saint Joseph's did not offer any grad degree programs pertaining to that field.
The pressure appears to be growing on St. Joe's to say something: As Doyel notes, plenty of heavy hitters within the college basketball community are jumping on O'Brien's bandwagon.You can add ESPN's Eamonn Brennan to the list. In his editorial, he reiterates the conundrum for journalists covering the story:
There are two sides to every story, unless one side refuses to give it, as Martelli and DiJulia have here. The immediate impulse, then, is to assume their side of the story is suspect. If there isn't some major chunk of information left undiscussed, and if O'Brien's account is accurate, Martelli is merely lashing out. He's making a personal point — and a self-destructive one at that.

Because here's the thing: O'Brien (no disrespect, Todd) is not a great college basketball player. He played 7.2 minutes on an 11-22 team last season. He would not be playing much more for the Hawks this season, especially given the emergence of sophomore forward C.J. Aiken, who has provided solid post work in Saint Joe's 8-3 start to 2011-12. It's not like O'Brien's transfer cost Saint Joe's a chance to be competitive. O'Brien didn't transfer to a school in the same league or the same city. He transferred rather harmlessly and with minimal impact.


In a normal transfer situation, a coach does a quick cost-benefit analysis and realizes that, yes, although he technically can prevent a player from transferring from his program, he should not exercise that ability. For one, it's wrong. Two, it's bad publicity. Three, is the kid that good anyway? Four, it's a headache — if a player doesn't want to be on your team, why would
you want him? Why keep a kid against his will? How does that help your team?

So, usually, the coach does the math and quickly says, "Hey, sure, go ahead, transfer. We wish Player X the best of luck in all his endeavors," etc. Maybe he'll append a restriction or two, like saying the player can't transfer to a team within his own league or he can't go play for an in-state rival. Or whatever.


You can have murky philosophical opinions on the transfer rules. I know I do. But in practice, these things usually work out.


Not for O'Brien, not for Martelli, not for Saint Joe's. And it just doesn't make any sense. Why is Martelli preventing a former benchwarmer from going where he wants to go with his final year of college basketball eligibility? He didn't really think it would just go away, did he? That O'Brien would just happily sit on UAB's bench all season without a peep? 
I've used two reports here indicating that journalists are remaining as objective as possible in this case while seeking an important answer -- why is Martelli acting like an immature bully? If O'Brien knows the answer, then he's not saying. If someone from St. Joe's knows, then he or she also isn't saying.

So, for now we are left to conclude that an otherwise obscure college basketball coach is determined to generate headlines for acting like a buffoon. Perhaps it's time he be pink-slipped for his lack of professionalism.

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