The simplest way for Appalachian State to have diffused criticism over its handling of the Devonte Graham situation was to have shown compassion and honored his request to be released from the letter of intent he signed last year.
Needless to say, the school went in a different direction.
Appalachian State instead dug in its heels Friday, releasing a thin-skinned six-paragraph statement defending its decision to force Graham to either honor his letter of intent or sit out a year and forfeit a season of eligibility.
Graham originally asked out of his letter of intent in February when high-profile programs began to show interest in him after he exceeded expectations during his senior season at Raleigh (N.C.) Broughton High. UConn, Butler, Creighton and Providence are among the schools who have expressed interest in recruiting Graham during the past month alone, but none can have any contact with him unless Appalachian State releases him from his letter of intent.
Appalachian State's statement offers handful of reasons for the school's hard-line stance, some reasonable and others laughable. Let's go through them one-by-one and evaluate their merit.
1. Graham wasn't forced to sign a letter of intent in Nov. 2012. He "willingly and excitedly" chose to do so.
Appalachian State is certainly correct Graham could have signed a non-binding grant-in-aid document instead of a letter of intent, but what the school doesn't acknowledge is he likely didn't even know that option existed. Most athletes and their families are naive to how one-sided the letter of intent is and most schools typically don't go out of their way to advertise that before signing day.
Whereas a school can ditch a player who signs a letter of intent without penalty if a better prospect becomes available, a player who reneges on a letter of intent sits out a year and forfeits a season of eligibility. A player who signs a grant in aid or other documents is free to back out of that without punishment if his prospective coach leaves or a bigger-name school shows interest.
2. Since Graham asked for his release three months after signing, Jason Capel and his staff had stopped recruiting other Class of 2014 point guards who "would have been grateful for the opportunity to receive a full scholarship." As a result, Appalachian State feared it could not have capably replaced Graham on the roster.
Appalachian State has every right to be frustrated. Not only did the Mountaineers lose a player considered a steal for a Southern Conference program, they also lost him too late in the recruiting process to realistically find a suitable replacement.
With that said, what is Capel accomplishing by refusing to grant Graham his release for the past seven months? Brewster Academy coach Jason Smith made it clear to me on Thursday that Graham has no intention of ever playing for Appalachian State. As a result, Capel will still have a hole in his roster at point guard whether he chooses to release Graham or not.
Furthermore, it's hypocritical of Capel to punish a kid for backing out of a contract when more appealing opportunities presented themselves. Capel, like any other coach in his shoes, would surely break his contract to leave Appalachian State in a heartbeat if a Big East or ACC school ever offered him its head coaching job.
3. Appalachian State believes other programs tampered with Graham by contacting him or those close to him after he had already signed. (ESPN.com reported NC State is the school Appalachian State has accused of tampering).
Again, I understand Appalachian State's frustration that another school is circumventing the rules, but I still don't see how the solution is refusing to release Graham to all 350-plus Division I schools.
An unpaid student-athlete received offers from schools he likes better than Appalachian State. What are the Mountaineers accomplishing by forcing Graham to sit out a year and forfeit a year of eligibility in order to go to one of those schools? Do they really want a player on their roster who doesn't want to be at Appalachian State?
4. Appalachian State feels it is "acting in the best interests of all student-athletes and Division I programs" by upholding the principles of the letter of intent as a binding agreement.
Here's where the statement from Appalachian State plunges into self-righteous nonsense. Appalachian State claims recruiting would be "utter chaos" without the binding nature of the letter of intent. The school also says that "when that principle is not upheld by a small number of people with selfish motives, it is to the detriment of the student-athlete, the vast majority of Division I institutions (particularly mid-major programs) and all of college basketball."
Uh, wow. First of all, the idea that one of Appalachian State's motives in not releasing Graham is to prevent "utter chaos" in recruiting is laughable. The Mountaineers are doing this because they believe it's in their own best interest. Secondly, it's beyond blatant hyperbole to suggest that players like Graham backing out of their letters of intent could cause "utter chaos." Transfers happen by the dozen every offseason yet college basketball seems to continue to function just fine.
Lastly, it's the ultimate pot-calling-the-kettle-black move for Appalachian State to accuse Graham and the schools that tampered with him of having "selfish motives." Were they looking out for themselves? Of course. But no more so than the school that has blocked a high school senior from attending the school of his choice for the past seven months because his decision left Appalachian State scrambling to find a suitable point guard replacement.
5. Appalachian State believes it was irresponsible that the headline to my column yesterday described the school as holding Graham "hostage" by not releasing him from his letter of intent.
Fair enough. Perhaps my word choice may have been a bit too strong. I can admit my mistake. Now it would be great to see Appalachian State officials admit theirs.