NCAA: Church-league game disqualifies Centennial grad

After bungling one of the more extreme cases of booster payoffs in collegiate sports history (Miami), letting a Heisman Trophy winner skate despite the fact he autographed items for sale at memorabilia shows (Johnny Manziel), and continuing to prove through actions and non-actions that the product has outgrown its office, the NCAA has picked the wrong time take a stand. Again.

Nathan Harries is a freshman basketball player at Colgate. He played at Centennial High School. He was a high achiever academically, graduated in 2011 with honors and was recruited by programs such as Princeton, Penn and Bucknell. But as a devout Mormon, Harries delayed college for two years to serve a religious mission in North Carolina. This fall, after two years of religious studies, ministering and serving the community, Harries enrolled at Colgate, with the expectation of playing basketball beginning with the season opener Friday against Wake Forest.

But the NCAA has stripped him of one season of eligibility, and you won’t believe why.

The governing body ruled that Harries played this past summer in an organized and competitive basketball league before enrolling at Colgate. In truth, Harries actually was just a fill-in for three games for a “C” level team in a relative church basketball league. Most players are in their 30s; one team is largely comprised of players in their 50s. According to one player, Matt Adams, a 36-year-old high school teacher, “We had one guy who played with us and he was like, ‘If any of you have any advice you could give me that would be great because I never played basketball before.’”

Michael Harries, Nathan’s father, said, “It’s like an old man’s league — I could play in it.

“Some of the rulings that come from the NCAA don’t make sense. Johnny Manziel gets a half-game suspension for signing autographs. A guy plays three games in a church league, and he loses a year. Obviously there’s a difference between big-time athletes and small-time athletes with the NCAA.”

This is another example of the NCAA being long on rules but short on logic.

The NCAA mandates student-athletes who don’t enroll in college within a year of graduating high school may not compete in organized competition or risk losing a year of eligibility. There is a legitimate reason for the rule. It’s to prevent athletes from playing games in competitive leagues and gaining an advantage before beginning college. There is a one-year grace period for the rule, however, which means Harries could have competed in a legitimate summer basketball league immediately following graduation without penalty.

He didn’t do that. Instead, 10 days after graduation, he began his mission in Raleigh, N.C. For two years, seven days a week, he rose at 6:30 a.m., did 30 minutes of exercise, then studied the Bible, performed service projects and used his high school Spanish skills to lend assistance in the barrios. He was allowed to email family members once a week, but speak to them by phone only twice a year: Christmas and Mother’s Day.

“He’s an outstanding young man,” said Marc Bernhisel, president of the North Carolina Raleigh Mission. “Very humble. I don’t think too many people were ever aware of his basketball skills.”

Bernhisel wasn’t aware of the NCAA’s ruling, and said Harries wouldn’t do what he is being accused of.

“That’s just not Nathan Harries,” he said.

Harries returned to his family’s Roswell home June 4. His father said he was down 15 pounds from his playing weight (Nathan’s listed at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds). Centennial athletic director Phillip Thomas said he occasionally saw him working out at the school.

Adams, a friend of the family, contacted Harries in mid-July because some players on his team couldn’t make the team’s next game and his roster was down to four players. Harries, hoping to get back in playing shape, jumped at the chance for a full-court game. He played three games total — two on one night, one on another.

In late July, just a few weeks before Harries planned to head to the Colgate campus in upstate New York, the NCAA emailed him a standard questionnaire, asking if he played any organized sports over the past two years. Harries didn’t think much of it. He responded yes.

A week later, the NCAA sent back a notice declaring him ineligible.

Colgate asked for a waiver. It was denied Oct. 21. Late last week, Colgate filed an appeal.

Cara Marie Singel, Colgate’s assistant athletic director for compliance, emailed a brief statement: “Colgate University has filed an appeal with the NCAA on Nathan Harries’ behalf. The university and the athletics department await the outcome of that appeal.”

Colgate prefers that Harries not comment during the appeals process.

Chris Radford, the NCAA’s associate director of public and media relations, released a statement: “I can confirm that an initial staff decision was provided. Once the formal appeal is received, the NCAA Subcommittee for Legislative Relief will review the case and provide a final decision. The NCAA typically does not discuss specific waiver-request information prior to the completion of the appeal process.”

There is the possibility of a quick resolution, and in Harries’ favor. The rules were not written with Harries’ situation in mind. The NCAA could term him an unintended consequence of that rule.

Timing also is in his favor. This comes on the heels of a similar storyline in August, when the NCAA declared Steven Rhodes, a Middle Tennessee freshman football player, ineligible for playing in an intramural league while he was serving five years in the Marines. The NCAA reversed the decision after widespread criticism and public humiliation.

So first the NCAA rules against somebody coming back from the military. Then it rules against somebody coming off of a religious mission. Is there an ounce of credibility left in that office?

Harries played in a league that, according to Adams, includes teachers, salesmen, a tax attorney and a guy who works for the CDC. There are teams called, “Net Profit,” “Respect My Car” and “Make it Drizzle.” They play one or two games at Dunwoody Baptist Church, then go home and cover themselves with ice bags.

One of the NCAA’s criteria for a competitive league is whether referees are used and players wear uniforms. There are referees. They do keep score. But Adams said most teams don’t even have matching uniforms.

When Harries played, he wore an old blue Centennial jersey with no number.

“Two of us had on a black jersey with the same number, but one of us was left-handed, so they said it was OK,” Adams said. (Crisis solved.)

When the NCAA sent its initial query to Harries, he never told his father. He didn’t think much of it until it was too late. He never imagined it would be a problem.

“He was upset. He thought it was crazy,” Michael Harries said. “When I asked him about the (query), he said, ‘Did you want me to lie?’

“You know what’s crazy?” Harries continued. “There’s one player on Colgate (Murphy Burnatowski) who plays for the Canadian (development) national team. So the NCAA says you can play in Europe against the U.S., Russia, Brazil, Australia, the Czech Republic and Sweden, but you can’t play in a church league. The whole thing is absurd.”

Unfortunately, where the NCAA is concerned, that’s not uncommon.

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