Updated: May 27, 2009 at 12:00 am
Kevin Wright still holds onto hope that he'll be able to continue his collegiate hockey career this winter.
But with each day, the Air Force defenseman's grip on that hope weakens.
According to the NCAA, Wright, who will be a junior in fall, no longer is eligible to compete. Not because he received improper gifts. Not because he used a banned substance. And not because he posted poor grades. To the contrary, the biology major's GPA is 3.67.
No, Wright is being penalized because of a technicality. And it's a technicality a college counselor said would not work against him.
"Frustration. Disappointment. Those words come to mind because you work for something for so long - pretty much my whole life," Wright said. "I've been playing since I was 7, and I always wanted to go as far as I could in hockey. College hockey is one of the higher levels you can make it to, and to have it be cut short by something that I thought was a positive decision when I was 17, and now it's coming back to haunt me, it doesn't feel very good."
Wright's decision came after he graduated from high school in 2004.
He wanted to play Division I college hockey but had no offers from D-I programs or from junior hockey clubs - from which collegiate programs recruit players. Because he was 17, however, he had a year of midget hockey eligibility. He decided to play that final year to attract junior teams.
His parents were OK with the decision but wanted him to take classes, so he enrolled at West Valley Community College in Saratoga, Calif.
This is not uncommon. According to Air Force coach Frank Serratore, virtually all of Wright's teammates took some classes at community colleges while playing junior hockey. It shows a commitment to academics.
Wright's error was taking too many classes.
According to NCAA bylaw 14.2.1 - the five-year rule - once someone takes enough classes to be considered a "full-time" student, he has five calendar years in which to complete his four seasons of participation. By taking enough classes to be considered full time at West Valley, Wright started his NCAA eligibility clock.
That means, according to the NCAA, time's up. Year one was spent playing midget hockey for the San Jose Jr. Sharks (2004-05), two and three were spent playing junior hockey for the Southern Minnesota Express of the North American Hockey League (2005-07) and his fourth and fifth years were his freshman and sophomore years at the academy (2007-09).
"He could have sloughed off and not gone to school at all and not had any of this happen," Serratore said. "But he and his parents wanted to do the right thing. He's punished for being academically motivated."
There are two cruel twists that make Wright's story - along with the NCAA's dismissal of his application for waiver and denial of his appeal - difficult for Wright to accept.
One is that he didn't get to carry the 41 credits he earned at West Valley (in his year as a full-time student and two more taking correspondence courses while playing junior hockey). So he gained no academic advantage from being a full-time student.
The second is that Wright was steered in the wrong direction. When he and his parents met with an enrollment counselor at West Valley, they emphasized they did not want to do anything that would adversely affect Wright's NCAA eligibility. The counselor informed them that because West Valley was not affiliated with the NCAA and did not have a hockey program, there would be no problem.
The counselor, a temporary employee not trained in NCAA eligibility regulations, was wrong. Two separate letters from the school - one from a counselor and one from Linda L. Gibson, dean of matriculation and counseling - admitted the counselor had erred.
And the counselor, Carol Tapella, admitted in writing that she recommended Wright should be a full-time student.
"If he would not have asked anybody, you could say, ‘Hey, you should have checked on this,'" Serratore said. "But he went to the damn guidance counselor at the college, and the guidance counselor gave him the bad advice."
The admission of bad advice seemed to give Wright an opening.
According to NCAA bylaw 30.6.1, a waiver of the five-year eligibility limit can be granted if there are "reasons that are beyond the control of the student-athlete."
Bylaw 126.96.36.199 details such circumstances - one of which is "reliance by the student-athlete upon ... clearly erroneous academic advice."
But the NCAA turned down Wright's waiver, and the committee on student-athlete reinstatement denied Wright's appeal because it "was unable to identify compelling extenuating circumstances to meet the requirements for extending the five-year period of eligibility or for waiving the start of the student-athlete's five-year clock."
In such cases, according to Stacey Osburn, the NCAA's associate director for public and media relations, the committee and staff also weigh that a student-athlete like Wright made the decision to delay enrollment at an NCAA school for athletic reasons (not for personal or academic motives).
The five-year rule attempts "to ensure a fair and level playing field for all student-athletes, including those that compete against the student-athletes applying for waivers," Osburn said.
"I thought that once they saw that I wasn't trying to cheat the system and that I was just trying to take care of my education that there was no harm or any negative side effects from my actions as far as athletics go," Wright said.
But in the letter confirming the denial of Wright's appeal, Jennifer Henderson, the NCAA's director of membership services/student-athlete reinstatement, wrote that "no additional appeal opportunity" exists.
But he hasn't given up. His family has begun a campaign to draw attention to the matter in the hopes that someone, anyone will intervene.
Wright is far from a star player. He was the Falcons' sixth defenseman last season and played 26 of 41 games. During the next two seasons, he likely would have been, as Serratore said, "a foot soldier."
"This is not a guy that we're trying to create a case for because he's going to lead us to the promised land," Serratore said.
Instead, Serratore just wants Wright - who made the Superintendent's List for excellence in academics, military and athletics - to have a chance to be part of his team.
"Here's a kid who's made all the right decisions. He's done all the right things. He chose not to take the path of least resistance," Serratore said. "Is that the kind of student-athlete you want to stick it to if you're the NCAA?"
"You read about people that are cheating and taking short cuts and getting second and third chances, and then you see this and you're going, ‘Are you kidding me?' ... Somebody needs to put the common sense test to this, because this kid is being wronged."
Contact the writer at 636-0365. Check out our Air Force blog at gazetteafasports.freedomblogging.com.
Here are some of the NCAA Bylaws pertinent to Air Force defenseman Kevin Wright's situation.
NCAA Bylaw 14.2.1 - Five-Year Rule
A student-athlete shall complete his or her seasons of participation within five calendar years from the beginning of the semester or quarter in which the student-athlete first registered for a minimum full-time program of studies in a collegiate institution, with time spent in the armed services, on official church missions or with recognized foreign aid services of the U.S. government being excepted. For international students, service in the armed forces or on an official church mission of the student's home country is considered equivalent to such service in the United States.
NCAA Bylaw 30.6.1 - Waiver Criteria
A waiver of the five-year period of eligibility is designed to provide a student-athlete with the opportunity to participate in four seasons of intercollegiate competition within a five-year period. This waiver may be granted, based upon objective evidence, for reasons that are beyond the control of the student-athlete or the institution, which deprive the student-athlete of the opportunity to participate for more than one season in his/her sport within the five-year period. The Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement reserves the right to review requests that do not meet the more-than-one-year criteria detailed in this bylaw for circumstances of extraordinary or extreme hardship. A student-athlete who has exhausted his or her five years of eligibility may continue to practice (but not compete) for a maximum of 30 consecutive calendar days, provided the student-athlete's institution has filed such a request. Further, if such a request is denied prior to exhausting the 30 day practice period, the student-athlete must cease all practice activities upon the institution's notification of the denial.
NCAA Bylaw 188.8.131.52 - Circumstances Beyond Control
Circumstances considered to be beyond the control of the student-athlete or the institution and do not cause a participation opportunity to be used shall include, but are not limited to, the following:
(a) Situations clearly supported by contemporaneous medical documentation, which states that a student-athlete is unable to participate in intercollegiate competition as a result of incapacitating physical or mental circumstances;
(b) The student-athlete is unable to participate in intercollegiate athletics as a result of a life-threatening or incapacitating injury or illness suffered by a member of the student-athlete's immediate family, which clearly is supported by contemporaneous medical documentation;
(c) Reliance by the student-athlete upon written, contemporaneous, clearly erroneous academic advice provided to the student-athlete from a specific academic authority from a collegiate institution regarding the academic status of the student-athlete or prospective student-athlete, which directly leads to that individual not being eligible to participate and, but for the clearly erroneous advice, the student-athlete would have established eligibility for intercollegiate competition;
(d) Natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, flood); and
(e) Extreme financial difficulties as a result of a specific event (e.g. layoff, death in the family) experienced by the student-athlete or by an individual upon whom the student-athlete is legally dependent, which must prohibit the student-athlete from participating in intercollegiate athletics. These circumstances must be clearly supported by objective documentation (e.g., decree of bankruptcy, proof of termination) and must be beyond the control of the student-athlete or the individual upon whom the student-athlete is legally dependant.
NCAA Bylaw 184.108.40.206 - Circumstances Within Control
Circumstances that are considered to be within the control of the student-athlete or the institution and cause a participation opportunity to be used include, but are not limited to, the following:
(a) A student-athlete's decision to attend an institution that does not sponsor his/her sport, or decides not to participate at an institution that does sponsor his/her sport;
(b) An inability to participate due to failure to meet institutional/conference or NCAA academic requirements, or disciplinary reasons or incarceration culminating in or resulting from a conviction;
(c) Reliance by a student-athlete upon misinformation from a coaching staff member;
(d) Redshirt year;
(e) An inability to participate as a result of a transfer year in residence or fulfilling a condition for restoration eligibility; and
(f) A student-athlete's lack of understanding regarding the specific starting date of his or her five-year period of eligibility.