6th Year of Eligibility Part 2

In the first part on this topic I focused on a case where one school was pursuing a 6th year for three players in the same season, which seemed peculiar because 6th year waivers are extremely rare; three on one team in one season is a substantial outlier that I felt should be explored further. Last week, another one of those three players, Ed Davis of Michigan State, received a 6th year of eligibility from the NCAA. This ruling doesn’t line up with precedent in previous rulings, nor does it follow the letter of the NCAA rule. So, what happened, why was this case approved whereas past similar cases have been denied, and what does this mean going forward? First, let’s take another look at the rule itself and how it has been applied in previous cases.

The 6th Year Waiver Rule

The rule as it is written aims to be black and white, but leaves a little room for a gray area if you look closely. It starts out like this: 12.8.1.5.1.1 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:

Those 5 bolded words are the gray area. This allows the NCAA some wiggle room should they encounter a case that doesn’t exactly fit a scenario outlined within the rule itself. The exact scenario outlined in the rule relevant to this case reads, “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.” This is where it looked like the 6th year waiver had no chance for Davis, as there was plenty of evidence suggesting he was not injured in 2011, but no publicly available documentation showing that he was injured. The only sources I could find claiming he was injured in 2011 were dated after his 2015 season-ending injury. If he had actually been injured in 2011, why is it so difficult to find any evidence of it until after he needed to be injured in 2011 to receive a 6thyear in 2016? Some teams are loath to disclose injury information to the public, but there exists plentiful documentation of injuries to other players on this team in the 2011 season. Why would Davis, a true freshman at the time and unknown to the college football world, be omitted from an injury report? Here is an archived article which gives both an injury update and a brief summary of the then-freshmen linebackers (Davis’ position group): https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/118491415/. The relevant excerpt from the article, as the formatting in this archive is difficult to navigate:

INJURY UPDATE: Tressel said he expects to have linebackers Chris Norman and Steve Gardiner back for Saturday’s game. A sprained shoulder kept Norman out of last week’s 24-3 loss at Nebraska. “I’m pretty confident he’ll be good to go this week,” Tressel said of Norman. “Wasn’t real comfortable. Could have gone if we really wanted (him) to play through the pain and risk it, but (he’s) got a lot of football to be played, so didn’t.” Gardiner suffered a shoulder stinger in the first half against Nebraska and did not return to the game. He practiced Tuesday.

FRESH LBS: Tressel said true freshman linebacker Taiwan Jones overcame a hurdle in recent weeks. “Sort of plateaued,” Tressel said of Jones. “Thought, ‘OK, I’m a backup.’ Which is great as afreshman. Sort of settled into that mind-set a little bit and got out of that funk the last couple weeks, which is really good, especially with Chris out this past week.” Jones, who has played mostly on special teams, has 10 tackles and a half-sack. Freshman linebackers Lawrence Thomas , Ed Davis and Darien Harris are on track for redshirt seasons. “If you look at our front seven on the scout team right now, the redshirt guys, that’s a pretty good group of players that are working hard,” Tressel said. “You’ve got Darien, L.T. and Ed Davis at the backer spots.” Tressel also mentioned defensive linemen Brandon Clemons , Damon Knox and Shilique Calhoun . “There are some boys that are going to be able to play some great football up here,” Tressel said. “The disappointment (of not playing) has passed. You accept the situation that you’re in and try to figure out how to help your team win.”

That quote is from MSU linebackers coach Mike Tressel, referring to Davis as being “on track for [a] redshirt season.” There is no mention of an injury however, even though Tressel was quoted in the previous paragraph about injuries to players in his position group. Claiming a player is on track for a redshirt season is a very peculiar way to say he is out for the season with an injury, especially when mentioned alongside two other non-injured freshmen also on track for a redshirt season. Also worthy of noting is that both of the other 6th year candidates, Brandon Clemons (received a 6th year) and Damon Knox (did not receive a 6th year, more on this later) are mentioned by name in the article, though only in an implied–not direct–quote from Tressel. It is shown in my original article that Clemons can be seen on the sideline late in the year not in uniform and on crutches, clearly establishing he had been injured at some point in the season. Additionally, it was brought to my attention after the first article that Clemons actually did participate in a game early in the 2011 season which takes a standard redshirt completely out of play for him, thus strengthening his case that his season was lost due to injury.

One more interesting piece of information from the first article is an indirect quote from an MSU compliance director in 2015:

She said the only thing taken into account is game competition. So the fact that Davis came back from knee and shoulder injuries to practice as a redshirt freshman in 2011 should not hurt his cause.

I initially didn’t acknowledge this part of the quote because it seemed that the interpretation of the rule had been twisted. It is true that only game competition is taken into account in terms of participating in less than the 30% of the season threshold, and since Davis played in zero games in 2011 this criterion was indeed met. However, because he played in zero games he (unlike Clemons) was eligible for a standard redshirt and would need to show he’d sustained an injury which was clearly supported by contemporaneous medical documentation. I have yet to find or be shown any publicly available documentation of an injury other than claims to an injury in 2011 that were made after his ACL injury in 2015. Even in the official release from MSU there was no acknowledgement of an injury in 2011, but there was acknowledgement of his 2015 injury: Davis did not play in 2011 and missed the entire 2015 season after suffering a torn ACL during the first week of preseason camp. (Source: http://www.msuspartans.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/090916aab.html)

Previous Rulings on Similar Cases

The interpretation of the NCAA rule on 6th year waivers in Davis’ case is starkly different from similar previous cases. In 2013, Notre Dame’s Jamoris Slaughter sought a 6th year and was denied because it was deemed his freshman season did not have proper documentation of an injury: http://www.herloyalsons.com/blog/2013/03/06/devin-gardner-michigan-medical-hardship-notre-dame-freeslaughter/. It is also noted in this article that a 6th year petition and a 5th year medical hardship waiver (example used here was Michigan’s Devin Gardner) are very different. From the article:

Slaugther’s case, Vining-Smith clarified, was a petition for a “6th year [extending] the 5 year clock based on 2 missed opportunities to participate.” Gardner’s case on the other hand was a hardship waiver which “[gets] a season back (additional season) within the 5 year clock when a student athlete has been injured in the first half of the season and participated in less than 30% of contests.”

Gardner had only played in three seasons and was never redshirted. Michigan went to the NCAA and said that his 2010 season should be granted a hardship because he was injured. The season that the NCAA gave back was still within the 5 year clock that Vining-Smith discribes. This is why Gardner’s case was such a “slam dunk” as she stated to me earlier.

Slaughter on the other hand had a much tougher case to prove. In order to get a sixth year, Slaughter had to show the NCAA that he missed two opportunities to play. While we are all aware of Slaughter’s injury in the 2012 season, that is only one year missed and Slaughter needed two. What Notre Dame argued was that Slaughter’s first season (2008), in which he redshirted, was actually a redshirt due to injury.

 

This document was put together by the Texas A&M compliance department and it illustrates two examples of a player seeking a 6th year. In the first scenario, the player would be granted a 6th year but in the second scenario would not. This second scenario looks extremely similar to Davis’ situation: http://grfx.cstv.com/photos/schools/tam/genrel/auto_pdf/comp101-3-five-year-clock-ext.pdf .

Why Was This Case Approved?

When a case is brought to the NCAA, the only evidence that will be considered is the evidence that the parties involved bring to the table. In this case, it was only Michigan State who was involved, thus only evidence that Michigan State submitted was considered. The NCAA has no reason to believe an institution would lie to them (which is a monumental risk to take with the NCAA; clearly not worth it for Michigan State here), so the NCAA does not need to pursue other avenues for information on the case. Obviously, Michigan State will only disclose information that helps their case; anything that would hurt their case simply would not be presented to the NCAA. Michigan State did not need to lie to get a 6th year approved for Ed Davis, but they also didn’t need to provide the NCAA with every shred of information about Davis’ career. They submitted enough to gain approval for a 6th year, and nothing more.

Other Peculiarities

The cases for both Damon Knox and Brandon Clemons were riddled with bizarre events as well. While Davis did not graduate until August 2016 (which is a prerequisite for applying for a 6th year), both Knox and Clemons graduated in December 2015. So when were their 6th year applications submitted? Clemons didn’t receive his 6th year approval until June 21, 2016, about 6 months after graduation. If the process took 6 months for Clemons, why would they have even bothered to submit an application for Davis in August? If the process didn’t take that long for Clemons, why did they wait so long after he graduated to submit the application? Surely knowing one way or the other is in the best interest of the student-athlete, in case he wants to make alternative plans for his future earlier than 6 weeks prior to fall camp.

It was claimed that Knox ultimately decided not to pursue a 6th year, but this news didn’t come out until May. First, let’s look at a timeline for Knox:

February; on signing day, Mark Dantonio mentions Knox, Clemons, and Davis will all be back for a 6th year at the 1:10 mark of this video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWkA2I73nyU

April; Knox is interviewed after a spring practice and discusses going into his 6th year

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxlurDeWuxQ

(Note: these next articles are from the same two authors in April and May and exhibit the same inconsistencies in reporting, which suggests it was not the authors’ error but the actual information released by Michigan State.)

April; multiple articles written claiming that Knox is awaiting on the NCAA to rule on his 6th year application. From the link below: Knox is now a graduate student participating in spring drills as he awaits word from the NCAA on whether he will be granted a sixth season of eligibility.

http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/sports/college/msu/football/2016/04/18/coach-knox-hoping-big-asset-msus-defense/83196058/

From the link below: Michigan State has applied with the NCAA for Knox to have a sixth year of eligibility, after he played just two games as a redshirt freshman in 2012 due to injury.

http://www.mlive.com/spartans/index.ssf/2016/04/michigan_state_dl_damon_knox_t.html

May; it is determined that Knox has decided not to return, and that the 6th year application was actually never submitted to the NCAA. From the link below: An athletic department spokesman said MSU never officially submitted paperwork to the NCAA to apply for a sixth year.

http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/sports/college/msu/football/2016/05/13/michigan-state-football-damon-knox/84345444/

From the link below: Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said earlier this year that the school would seek a waiver for a sixth year of eligibility for Knox, but a school spokesperson said on Friday the school did not file paperwork with the NCAA for that waiver.

http://www.mlive.com/spartans/index.ssf/2016/05/michigan_state_dt_damon_knox_l.html

It appears that the university was trying to backpedal from the claim that they had submitted an application for a 6th year, but why? Had Knox actually been denied a 6th year and forced to pursue a different path?

What This Means Going Forward

This ruling is excellent news for student-athletes; not only for Davis, who gets a chance to actually play his senior year, but for future student-athletes pursuing a 6th year. The precedent has been set such that a player who takes a voluntary redshirt as a true freshman and later on loses a year to injury will still have a very good chance to compete for 4 years by applying for their 6th year. The interpretation of the rule from Michigan State’s compliance director that I referenced earlier in this article appears to now be the standard used for this rule: If a student-athlete doesn’t participate in competition for a season, that season can now be used as one of the two lost seasons needed to be granted a 6th year. It’ll be interesting to see if the NCAA chooses to officially remove “redshirt year” from their list of circumstances within the student-athlete’s control. This would go a long way in removing the gray area of the rule and ultimately benefits the student-athlete, which I think we can all agree is a win for everyone.