K-State's athletic department won't release Leticia Romero. Should they?

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

K-State's refusal to grant a scholarship release to Leticia Romero has turned into a referendum on NCAA transfer rules. But it's a complicated situation that doesn't fit easily into a single narrative. In other words, it's the real world.

What this is...

Leticia Romero, who just completed her true freshman season at K-State, wants to transfer to another, as yet unspecified, school to play basketball. Romero committed to K-State largely because of the relationship she built during recruiting with former K-State assistant coach Shalee Lehning, and despite her preference to live somewhere warm and sunny like her home in Spain.

K-State fired women's basketball coach Deb Patterson on March 9th, 2014, and hired former TCU coach Jeff Mittie. Lehning declined a spot on Mittie's staff, and has yet to accept a coaching job elsewhere. Patterson likewise is still unemployed. Only assistant coach Kamie Ethridge has found employment thus far, landing at Northern Colorado.

Romero's situation first came to light on April 15th, when Manhattan Mercury reporter Josh Kinder reported that K-State had denied Romero's initial transfer request. Three days later, K-State denied Romero's appeal of that decision.

What this isn't...

There's no question K-State acted within its authority under NCAA rules. K-State is not compelled to grant a release to any student-athlete on scholarship. The athletic department is free to deny a release for any reason, or no reason at all.

This also isn't a referendum on "today's youth" or "throwing a tantrum to get what you want." One student-athlete requesting a scholarship release does not speak to the mindset of anyone else, or any subset of the population. And requests for permission to contact and scholarship releases are common across the country, and occur for any variety of reasons.

So why won't K-State release Romero?

K-State's student-athlete handbook states that "except for the most compelling circumstances which place an undue burden on the student athlete, it is the policy of the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics not to grant a release for purposes of a transfer or provide the one-time transfer exception." Citing student privacy, K-State has remained mostly quiet on the subject.

Athletic director John Currie released a series of tweets that roughly read as follows: "Student privacy prevents discussion of individual student issuesAs AD I have an obligation to all of our student-athletes and institution to ensure department and university procedures are followedGenerally speaking, on RARE occasions that we have denied a student-athlete transfer releaseit has been because of concerns about outside tampering, undue influence by third partiesor procedures not being followed in an honest and forthright manner."

Assumptions

Our inability to directly interview the parties involved in this situation limits us to the information disbursed by the journalists covering the story. K-State's inability to fully comment based on student privacy issues further limits the information available. Any change in the assumptions below could well change the overall analysis.

A native of Las Palmas, Spain, Romero is probably in the United States on a student visa. She probably isn't eligible for student loans from U.S. lenders. She probably can't take a year off school and work, because she's here on a student visa, not a work visa.

K-State is probably not denying Romero her release out of spite. There have been rumors that Lehning, and possibly Patterson, have job offers contingent on bringing Romero with them. Other coaching staffs may have violated NCAA permission-to-contact rules and contacted Romero after Patterson was fired. Beyond these concerns, there's bad blood between the athletic department and the former coaching staff. According to Tim Fitzgerald's report, someone on the former coaching staff destroyed, or attempted to destroy, physical and electronic files pertaining to the program. There may be more than that.

And we don't, and won't, know whether K-State offered Romero a conditional release. The athletic department may have offered to release her, but with school restrictions. Romero claims the athletic department told her to stay a year and, if she still wanted to transfer, they would grant her release next year. According to Romero, this is the deal the athletic department offered to Angel Rodriguez, who played one year for Bruce Weber before transferring.

Fitzgerald's report disputes that Rodriguez requested a transfer when Frank Martin left, but does so only based on the fact that neither Rodriguez nor Martin ever went to the media about it. There's no guarantee the parties involved will go to the media. And considering the privacy concerns, if someone from the athletic department did tell Fitzgerald that the Rodriguez situation is different, then we have a whole new area of concern here.

Did Romero meet K-State's criteria for a release?

First, what is Romero's hardship? Some argue that Romero's alleged hardship is her own creation, that the financial hardship of paying her way for a year only exists if she decides to leave K-State. She can, after all, remain on scholarship at K-State next year, assuming K-State renews her scholarship. This last provision will so obviously happen that it's hardly worth mentioning.

This is true, but it's a shortsighted and incomplete truth. Romero would not be asking to leave K-State if the coaching staff that recruited her had not been fired. She chose to play for these coaches over those at Florida State and Virginia Tech and others last year. If they had remained in K-State's employ, there's no reason to believe Romero's decision would've changed.

Romero risks decreased playing time and a style of play that doesn't suit her talents if forced to play for a coaching staff she didn't choose. This in turn risks her professional future. For someone like Romero, who probably aspires to play professionally either here or in Europe, this is no small concern. Even players who end up playing for the coach they chose sometimes get burned.  Does ESPN's 30 for 30 "The Best That Never Was" ring a bell? This is also why playing junior college basketball isn't a viable alternative for Romero.

Let's disabuse ourselves of our sentimental notions of alma mater and getting an education for a moment. Romero may well have been on the road to a degree at K-State, but she came to K-State to prepare for a professional basketball career first. So did Michael Beasley. This stuff isn't controversial.

Beyond that, employing the assumptions from above, Romero faces real financial hardship if forced to pay her way for a year. Non-resident tuition, room and board at K-State runs almost $30,000, and K-State advertises itself as one of the great values in undergraduate education. Maybe you've seen the fliers. That's a lot of money that she can't borrow, and Romero says her parents can't afford it. I'll take her at her word on that.

It's difficult for me to imagine a more compelling circumstance or undue burden. K-State fired the coach Romero traveled halfway across the world to play for, and a potential future professional doesn't want to risk her future earnings on a coach she probably knows nothing about. Now, to play for a coach of her own choosing, rather than one that's chosen for her, she would face a financial burden she may not be able to shoulder.

OK, fine. Does K-State have any valid concerns here?

Probably. Again, Patterson and Lehning may very well be angling for coaching jobs with Romero baiting the hook. It's interesting that Romero's release is tied up right now and neither Patterson nor Lehning have accepted a job. This could well be a waiting game by K-State.

Add in the less-than-ideal circumstances under which Patterson's coaching staff left, and the things one or several of them did after dismissal. The athletic department may be hell-bent on making sure Romero doesn't follow Patterson or Lehning, and whatever public relations hit they take in the interim is well worth it.

Speaking of which...

How much is K-State really suffering in the court of public opinion?

Not that much. Spring football and K-State's spring game kept the local media occupied, and nobody on the local beat seems particularly interested in pressing the story. Google returns zero stories from national outlets covering Romero's situation.

Even the SB Nation illuminati, usually highly attuned to the slightest hint of unfairness toward student-athletes by the NCAA or its member institutions, hasn't noticed. Despite frequent tweets from Jay Bilas, the self-congratulation machine hasn't kicked into high gear.

My former roommate works extensively with heavily recruited high school basketball players. He was the first person to inform me that K-State was recruiting Wesley Iwundu, and to predict that Iwundu would be a solid contributor in Manhattan. He's said the story barely warrants a ripple on the recruiting scene.

I get it. Romero's in a bad spot, and K-State probably has some valid concerns. So what's fair here?

Fair. Fairness. The words that spilled millions of pixels of virtual ink on BOTC this week.

But maybe we shouldn't think of this in terms of fairness. Maybe we should think of it in terms of reasonableness. What does K-State need to do in this situation to reasonably protect its interests?

Most transfer situations raise concerns about the athlete using inside knowledge against the school, and using their talents to the former school's detriment. In this situation, only the latter concern is valid. Romero has no valuable institutional knowledge of K-State with Patterson gone. And K-State can deal with the former by restricting the schools to which it will grant Romero a release.

But wait, TB, you say. K-State has to set a precedent and protect itself from other schools tampering with its athletes.

First, let's move beyond the obvious here. Tampering happens. The current rules - permission-to-contact rules and a year in residence for transfer student-athletes - may deter, but they do not prevent this type of contact.

K-State probably has concerns that its former coaches are trying to pull a scholarship player away to their new destination. They may have concerns that other coaching staffs have contacted Romero in violation of NCAA rules. Do these concerns justify the harm inflicted on Romero by refusing to grant her release?

No. Romero's situation is far different from that of most student-athletes. Between her potential future professional career and her status as an international student, the harm visited upon her is greater than the average student-athlete would face. Fears that granting Romero's release sets a precedent that could lead to an avalanche of transfer requests are almost certainly overblown. Any first-year law student can distinguish Romero's case from that of the average student-athlete. And where are all the other K-State women's basketball players who are requesting their release?

One of the articles linked above notes that Florida State and Virginia Tech were among the finalists in Romero's recruitment. These aren't conference or regional rivals. Next year's schedule hasn't been released, but neither FSU nor VT is likely on it. It's possible K-State could run into them in the NCAA Tournament, but this is a remote concern for many reasons.

We don't know what, if anything, K-State offered Romero. Restricting her from transferring to other Big 12 schools is reasonable. Restricting her from transferring to wherever Patterson and Lehning end up is arguably reasonable. There surely isn't only one coach for whom Romero can play - Florida State and Virginia Tech were probably finalists for a reason - and the former coaching staff apparently is due some retribution for their actions on the way out the door.

Anything beyond that strikes me as unreasonably restricting transfer just because it's within the rules. And that's all this should be about. K-State should do what is reasonably necessary to protect itself and advance its interests, not teach people lessons in how unfair and unreasonable the real world can be.

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