The invitation seemed innocent enough to Nathan Harries at the time.
A family friend whose Atlanta church-league team was down to four players reached out to the Colgate-bound guard this past summer to see if he'd have any interest in playing a few games. Harries agreed since he had just returned from his Mormon mission and needed to get back into game shape before he left to begin his freshman year at Colgate in August.
That innocuous favor for a friend may end up costing Harris a year of eligibility, however, thanks to the latest bizarre decision made by the NCAA. The governing body ruled that the three church league games Harries played violated a rule stipulating that athletes who don't enroll in college immediately after graduating high school will be penalized a year of eligibility for every academic year they partake in organized competition.
The purpose of the rule is to prevent athletes from playing games in competitive leagues to gain an advantage before beginning college, but the league at Dunwoody Baptist Church isn't exactly populated with future Kobes and LeBrons.
Michael Harries, Nathan's father, said the most of the players are guys in their 30s trying to run off their beer bellies and have a little fun after work. There were seldom fans in the bleachers to watch teams with names like "Make it Drizzle" or "Respect My Car."
"As you can imagine, it's very frustrating for Nathan and for us," Michael said. "The NCAA is trying to discourage players from getting an unfair advantage by playing in high-level leagues, but that's absolutely not the case here. This was a typical after-work league in Atlanta, some former high school players and some who haven't played hardly at all. Nobody's in the gym except the teams and the referees. It's organized, but it's an old man's league."
Colgate filed an appeal on behalf of Harries last Friday in hopes the NCAA will reconsider its decision and grant the freshman his full four years of eligibility. Michael Harries is hopeful the NCAA will rule in his son's favor but also exasperated that the situation has even gotten this far.
If the case involving Middle Tennessee football player Steven Rhodes is any precedent, there's a good chance Harries could win his appeal in the very near future.
Rhodes was initially denied eligibility because he played in a few recreational games while serving in the Marines, but the NCAA reversed its decision after Middle Tennessee argued it was a glorified intramural league that hardly gave Rhodes a competitive edge. Public pressure has quickly mounted for the NCAA to do the same for Harries since the Atlanta Journal Constitution published a story spotlighting the situation Wednesday morning.
Regardless of whether Harries' case follows the same pattern as Rhodes', however, both initial rulings highlight one of the NCAA's most glaring problems.
Too often NCAA staffers make decisions based on strict interpretations of the rulebook even if they fly in the face of common sense, a habit that often results in a hail of criticism once the rulings become public. What NCAA administrators need to do is give their staff the flexibility to make a logical decision when an athlete gets ensnared on a technicality even though he did not violate the spirit of the rule.
Harries, an honors student recruited by the likes of Penn and Princeton, is definitely the ideal example of that. This is a kid the NCAA should be spotlighting not penalizing.
"We don't want anything more than just for Nathan to have the opportunity to play four years of college basketball," Michael Harries said. "Hopefully when the appeals sub-committee looks at it, they'll see the facts the way they really are."
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