The NCAA has a rare chance to look good this week—all it needs to do is let Dezmine Wells play immediately for Maryland.
Wells landed with the Terrapins earlier this week after a whirlwind transfer process that started just three weeks ago. The sophomore guard, who made the Atlantic-10 all-rookie team after averaging 9.8 points per game last season, was expelled from Xavier on Aug. 21 for a “serious violation of the Code of Student Conduct,” according to a school release. Shortly thereafter, reports surfaced that Wells had been accused of sexual assault.
The decision was made by the University Conduct Board, a group of students, faculty and administrators—much like the similarly-named group at Duke.
Only one little problem—Wells is innocent.
The school acted before the legal process could play out, which it did in just one week.
Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters declined to prosecute the case, stating that based on the evidence he had, “It wasn’t even close…. We would never take anything like this to court. It just wouldn’t happen.”
He also added that Wells’ expulsion was “fundamentally unfair,” and the case “should never have gotten to the point where someone’s reputation is ruined.” But it did, and now the NCAA has a chance to take a step toward improving its tattered image by letting him play.
Under normal circumstances, a transfer cannot play in games during his first year at a new school, but can receive financial assistance and practice. Maryland is applying for a hardship waiver on Wells’ behalf, though, stipulating that his unique situation merits an exception.
Why, as a Duke fan, should you support the cause of Wells—who immediately becomes one of the ACC’s top guards—and the Terps? If a noble quest for justice isn’t enough, you could remember that the Blue Devils have a unique transfer case of their own on the football field.
Jeremy Cash joined the Blue Devils in January, several weeks after the NCAA announced sanctions on Ohio State for its major rules violations under head coach Jim Tressel. The infractions were committed before Cash ever put on a Buckeye uniform, going back as far as 2002. Tressel even knew about the transgressions in April 2010—the same month Cash committed as a high school senior.
Unfortunately it’s too late for Cash, whose final appeal was denied in the same week Wells was expelled, but it isn’t too late for the NCAA to show that it can distinguish whether or not a player is at fault for his transfer.
The NCAA approves about half of the undergraduate hardship waivers it evaluates every year in football and basketball, approving 132 and denying 133 between April 2007 and April 2012, and there aren’t 132 players who have gone through the same hardship Wells has over the last month, and Cash did last winter. Unfortunately, Wells may not meet the NCAA’s non-Webster approved definition of hardship, just as Cash didn’t. The 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.”
But just a few months ago, Central Michigan guard Trey Zeigler was granted a waiver to play immediately at Pittsburgh because his father was fired from the Chippewa head coaching position. Now is that an injury or an illness?
There has also been public outcry against Wells’ appeal from some who believe approving his case would set a bad precedent.
CBS college basketball analyst Seth Davis tweeted Tuesday, “Regardless of whether Wells got the shaft at X, it’s hard to see reason to grant him waiver to play this year. Talk about a slippery slope.”
The NCAA has shown its willingness to make enough slippery slopes to cover a mountain range, though, with Zeigler as the most recent example. What if his uncle had been fired? His second cousin? Or what if his father had been just an assistant coach? Or a professor at the university?
And how often does a case like Wells’ come around? A prematurely and wrongfully expelled student-athlete was forced to find a school still sitting on an available scholarship in September, then made all his recruiting visits and final decision before the semester started.
This doesn’t have to set a precedent. NCAA spokesman Cameron Schuh told ESPN.com in July that “each case is reviewed and determined based on its own merits.”
Xavier has regretfully maintained its silence since the expulsion announcement. Not only do they owe Wells a public apology, but they ought to lobby the NCAA on his behalf. And the NCAA ought to finally do what’s right, and for once, make an exception in their rulebook that benefits not a big-money university or coach, but a player who has handled himself admirably throughout a trying period.
When Wells announced his decision to attend Maryland via Twitter Tuesday morning, he wrote, “I’ve learned that it is a major responsibility that comes with being a student athlete at all times.”
It’s time for Xavier and the NCAA to show that responsibility exists on both sides.