On the face of it, Donte Hill’s waiver case looks to be a harsh decision. Hill played one season at Clemson before transferring midyear to Old Dominion the following year. But before that transfer, he played eight minutes in a closed scrimmage, which for everyone but incoming freshmen counts as a season of eligibility. Hill then played half a season after sitting out his transfer residency requirement then another full season at ODU to complete his eligibility.
But Hill’s waiver request to regain the season of eligibility he used during the scrimmage in Clemson was denied. This is likely because, unlike Tim Abromaitis, the coaching staff at Clemson never intended to redshirt Hill. There was no misunderstanding by the coaching staff that lead to Hill playing in the scrimmage. He played in the scrimmage because the coaches thought he would be playing with them for the whole season.
This immediately lead to claims that the NCAA made a poor decision with Hill’s waiver. But granting Hill another season of eligibility would have been far outside of NCAA waiver criteria and precedent. He played in the scrimmage which meant he used the season of eligibility. His decision to transfer, something within his control, caused him to not get the full use of that season.
But anger at the NCAA’s waiver decision is misplaced. Trying to extend the waiver process leads to claims that decisions are inconsistent. Instead of focusing on the waiver process, anger should be directed at the core rule which lead to Hill needing a waiver in the first place.
If an athlete participates in any intercollegiate competition during an academic year, it counts as using one of his or her four seasons of competition. There are some exceptions though. Participating in an alumni game, fundraising activity, or celebrity sports activity does not use a season of competition. Athletes in fall sports like soccer and women’s volleyball who play during the spring exhibition season can still redshirt that year. And basketball players in their first year at the school can play in these scrimmages during a redshirt year.
This rule could easily be extended a little bit, to include preseason exhibition contests and scrimmages not just in basketball, but in all sports. Or it could be extended a lot, setting some minimum amount of competition that an athlete can compete in before that year counts as a season of competition. The medical hardship waiver limits (30% of contests and only in the first half of the season) would be a good start.
Even more radically, the NCAA could get rid of seasons of competition altogether. In Division I, the five-year clock is just as effective a limit on how long an athlete can compete as the four seasons are. Allowing athletes to play five seasons comes up as an NCAA proposal every few years, and often includes a provision for no waivers or extensions of eligibility. But seasons of competition could be dropped as a limit and the clock extended for the same reason it is now: two denied participation opportunities.
If an athlete has to seek a waiver, something has already gone at least a little bit wrong with the NCAA’s rules. If that waiver seems like a strong case, something went very wrong. Expanding waivers is just a band-aid. The place where reform is truly needed is to the basic rule itself which needs to be waived in the first place.