A new rule adopted by the NCAA last year aimed at affording college basketball players more leeway in determining whether to turn professional or return to school has already been met with criticism for the very issues that it sought to address.
Phil Bledsoe, a standout guard from Glenville State University in Glenville, W.Va., was dismayed to learn that NCAA Rule 126.96.36.199 did not apply to him, given the specific language in the rule stating it only applies to Division I players.
Glenville is a Division II school.
The rule provides an exception to the general rule under Section 12.3.1 that disallows players to sign with an agent and maintain their eligibility.
The newly created exception allows DI athletes to be represented and signed by an NCAA-certified agent and allow those agents to work with and on behalf of those players and pay for minimal expenses for team workouts. However, those contracts must be terminated if the player decides to return to school.
The exception gives players the opportunity to experience the draft preparation process, consult with professionals about their talent and then determine whether to return to school or remain in the draft pool. Several players have already utilized this rule to attain feedback on their game and how they can improve their draft position in the following years.
Jerry Dianis, who Bledsoe signed with as his agent to assist him with the draft process, assured Bledsoe that he would be able to test the waters of the draft while still maintaining the option of returning to school.
Dianis had previously been to an NBA Players Association event where the NCAA discussed the rule at length. This discussion gave him no pause when advising Bledsoe that he would have the option to go back to college if he chose to do so.
University compliance coordinator Bill Lilly agreed with Dianis that Bledsoe qualified for the exception found within the rule not noting that the exception only applied to Division I players. Lilly consulted with other university compliance coordinators and the NBA who stated that the rule’s focus was on who was entering or removing themselves from the draft, and not whether they wanted to return to school.
Lilly also did not anticipate any issues with Bledsoe’s approach, and it appears that Lilly performed the background work necessary to understand the rule, or at least he thought he did.
Bledsoe, his agent, the school’s compliance coordinator and even the head coach all agreed that Bledsoe could pursue this newly created avenue afforded by the rule. Normally, this kind of reliance is exactly how the guidelines are expected to be followed. Players rely on experts in the field to provide accurate guidance and help in creating a successful career.
Despite this guidance, Bledsoe is not only draft ineligible for 2019, but he also may not be able to return to school as a student-athlete because he signed with an agent. Further, he removed himself from the draft pool before the May 29 11:59 p.m. deadline for underclassmen to withdraw if they want to return to school.
Before Bledsoe can get a determination on his status, the NCAA must declare him ineligible before the university is able to make headway on his reinstatement.
Lilly has already begun the process of defending Bledsoe by submitting a reinstatement request to the NCAA with the goal being that the NCAA will soon declare Bledsoe ineligible.
The reasoning of the request asks the NCAA to place blame on Lilly for “misadvisement” to Bledsoe, acknowledging that he gave Bledsoe and his representatives incorrect advice that the rule applied to all divisions.
As of the publication date of this article, the NCAA has not yet made a ruling but has previously stated that when the rule was adopted it was meant for the DI environment given the ongoing federal corruption investigation involving several DI programs and that Division II and III schools would evaluate the impact of the rule on the DI setting and determine its viability in their divisions.
Without a definitive NCAA ruling that would allow him to continue playing, Bledsoe will be forced to consider other options such as playing overseas for a year. He could also consider finishing his degree, but no longer play on the basketball team.
Glenville State and Bledsoe will argue that the intent of the NCAA and the Commission on College Basketball was for the rule to apply to all “basketball student-athletes” and “college basketball players.” Those broad terms were utilized by the NCAA’s Committed to Change website that explained the various reforms that former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice-led commission recommended.
However, the NCAA has significant latitude in making determinations on the application of the language of their rules. The NCAA holds a huge advantage in this dispute not only because of the language in the rule itself that only mentions DI, but also because each division’s rulebook has always been treated separately and each possesses its own exceptions that apply to the relevant division. Bledsoe and his team can only hope that the NCAA sees the case their way.
The university is hopeful for a determination in Bledsoe’s favor in the next couple of weeks. Dianis believes after several conversations with NCAA officials that Bledsoe will be able to return to school and maintain his eligibility, and that this misunderstanding is just an unintended omission by the NCAA of a few words from the newest rule exceptions.
However, the NCAA has remained tight-lipped and has continued its pattern of declining to speak on individual cases.
Regardless of the outcome, this ruling should influence drafting work on new rules that are implemented in the future. Emphasis and specific language separating DI, DII and DIII can be expected to be highlighted so that misunderstandings in application such as this do not come up again.
In addition, this case, if it is not found in Bledsoe’s favor, will likely serve as a cautionary tale to other college athletes who are planning to become dependent on their advisers for sound advice.
Players should be wary of the potential long-term impacts that their reliance on their advisers and school administrators may have on their future earnings and career longevity.