Brock Hoffman's Denied Waiver Request Shows How NCAA Transfer Restrictions Fail College Athletes
In February, 6’3”, 310-pound offensive lineman Brock Hoffman agreed to transfer to and play football for Virginia Tech. He followed proper NCAA procedures and filed a waiver request to play football at Virginia Tech this upcoming season because, according to the current NCAA rules, a college athlete who transfers from a four-year college to an NCAA institution must complete one academic year of residence unless they qualify for a transfer exception or are granted a waiver from the rule. So, he sought immediate eligibility under NCAA Bylaw 14.7’s “Residency Requirement" relief, reportedly stating that he is transferring to be closer to his mom since she had a brain tumor removed and still suffers lingering effects from the surgery (“facial paralysis, hear (sic) loss and eye sight issues”).
The NCAA denied Hoffman’s waiver request.
Let’s talk a bit about (a) the requirements for this type of transfer waiver, (b) whether Hoffman’s case satisfies those requirements and whether the facts could be used in a different way for a stronger argument in his favor, and (c) how this is likely to go down on appeal and why.
Waivers Concerning an Immediate Family Member Illness or Injury
In addition to the NCAA Bylaws governing transfer procedures, the Division I Legislative Council’s Subcommittee for Legislative Relief determines certain guidelines in interpreting rules’ application. The subcommittee made a change back in 2012 to what the legislative relief staff can consider when a college athlete transfers to a school closer to home because of an immediate family member’s illness or injury. In short, here are the main considerations:
(1) The injured or ill “immediate family member” is limited to the player’s mom, dad, sibling, child, or legal guardian;
(2) The injury or illness must be “debilitating” and requiring ongoing care; and
(3) The new school must be within 100 miles of the immediate family member’s residence.
To reiterate, those reviewing the waiver request are simply directed to consider these in making its determination; it does not necessarily mean a request will be granted or denied with certain interpretations. A player has a right to appeal, as always, but filing an appeal is more time consuming and leaves the player hanging in a stressful, unknown status.
Analyzing Hoffman’s Case
Strictly speaking, Hoffman’s case does not satisfy the NCAA’s requirements to receive a residency requirement waiver because (a) he is a football player, and (b) his new school is not within 100 miles from his mother’s residence, and the decision could also be influenced by the illness’ status at the time he chose to file his waiver request (but the details of when the tumor was discovered, exactly when the surgery took place and how long has passed since, his mother’s health status before and after the surgery, and where in that timeline Hoffman began to file his request are not publicly available at this time, and the NCAA likely will not disclose this information).
NCAA Bylaw 126.96.36.199.10 states that college athletes who participate “in a sport other than baseball, basketball, bowl subdivision football or men’s ice hockey at the institution to which the student is transferring” may qualify for the one-time transfer exception if a few other conditions are met. Being a football player, therefore, severely restricts a college athlete’s mobility compared to many other college athletes. Is this fair? I do not think so whatsoever, but the NCAA and its member institutions argue this is critical to protecting amateurism and college athletics. This restriction, which I believe violates section 1 of the Sherman Act as an unlawful restraint of trade, is the college athletics cartel having a crack at controlling their own interests while disguising it as being in these young players’ best interests so they can develop into strong leaders with integrity making a difference in this world. That logic totally makes sense…
Anyway, Hoffman is a football player. If he wants to seek relief from completing the residency requirement, he needs to fall within another exception or apply for a waiver. He would not be able to meet any of the exceptions listed in Bylaw 14. Thus, he appropriately filed for a Residency Requirement Waiver described in Bylaw 14.7.2.
Although his mother is an “immediate family member” by definition, Virginia Tech is outside of the 100 mile radius that the institution the player moves to should be within. While his mother’s exact home address is unknown and assuming that his mother resides in his declared hometown of Statesville, North Carolina, I did a bit of high-tech scientific research using Google Maps to measure the approximate distance between Statesville and Virginia Tech and to other Division I institutions for comparison’s sake. Virginia Tech is considerably closer to Statesville than Coastal Carolina. A reasonable person would say that alone could be sufficient if it was not for the NCAA rule, but as you can see, the approximation shows Virginia Tech to be a bit outside the 100 mile zone.
For comparison, from a general point in Statesville, Virginia Tech is approximately the same distance away as Duke and UNC - Chapel Hill. Hoffman could argue that there is no “Power 5” school within the 100 mile radius besides Wake Forest (approximately 45 miles) that could satisfy the requirement and that his collegiate potential should not be limited because of a trivial numerical distance. On the other hand, there are many non-”Power 5” Division 1 institutions that appear to be within the 100 mile radius that Hoffman could have chosen to transfer to and likely receive immediate eligibility to play football (distances approximated): Appalachian State University (65 miles), Davidson College (20 miles), East Carolina University (45 miles), Gardner-Webb University (70 miles), High Point University (60 miles), and others. The NCAA wants to continue to attempt stressing the academic reasons for transfers rather than athletic reasons, and because of its persistent - and yet, anemic - argument that amateurism needs restrictions like these, it is no surprise that an argument focusing on the availability of local schools like this would not be successful in an initial request.
The NCAA also requires the college athlete to submit medical documentation of the immediate family member’s injury because it should be “debilitating,” though there is no clear-cut expression of what constitutes such a level. The NCAA can have other medical professionals review the documentation and advise the legislative staff on the injury or illness status, but as uncomfortable as it feels, we basically have the NCAA deciding what injuries or illnesses are serious enough that permit a student to be able to participate in a sport at a school closer to home. Here, Hoffman states that his mother is still suffering the aftermath symptoms from surgery whereas the legislative relief staff allegedly stated that her improving condition was one of the factors it used in denying his waiver request. I concur with my friend Sean who messaged me a possible explanation this morning. He reasoned that maybe the staff made its ruling by falling on the “no longer having that medical issue” side instead of interpreting the facts as “after-effects of that medical issue” still rendering her debilitated. As stated earlier in this section, we do not know the details of the timeline, etc., but it is important to address that these facts exist because both parties use them in their reasoning, or it could be possible that the argument was not made. More importantly, do we want or need legislative members of the NCAA to consider this?
According to a Virginia Tech source who knew the details of the case well, the school was “cautiously optimistic” about Hoffman’s case at the time it gathered the necessary paperwork and filed the request. This particular feeling - being “cautiously optimistic” - is not uncommon, though. Schools are in a delicate position because they will only put forth the effort to help compile the folder if they believe there is a chance to get the waiver, but they do not want to get the player’s hopes up because the NCAA’s decision-making is bluntly and awfully inconsistent. When you combine the school’s passion for moving forward with an appeal with the presently very public facts at hand and the full committee’s purpose in the appeals process, Hoffman has a strong likelihood of getting his waiver request granted on appeal.
What to Watch on Appeal
The Division I Legislative Council’s Subcommittee for Legislative Relief was created back in 1993 in order to have increased rules flexibility. With respect to an appeal of a staff decision, the full committee’s purpose is to review a request on a case-by-case basis and determine whether it will choose not to strictly apply the rule in that particular instance. Only a simple majority vote of the full Legislative Relief committee is needed to make this decision. Unlike a request’s initial review, which typically needs to stay true to the book, the seven Legislative Relief committee members’ are afforded the opportunity to be more flexible in reviewing appeals.
That being said, although Hoffman’s situation is not the cookie-cutter extraordinary example that can warrant not applying the rules, he should still win the appeal. Indeed, there are numerous facts that do not support his argument, such as the number of Division 1 institutions within the 100 mile radius of his mom’s residence and his mom’s condition improving (for the time being, at least), but when it comes to reviewing the requirements for this kind of waiver request, the full Legislative Committee should use a more reasonable perspective. For example, a reasonable person could approximate that 105 miles or so is approximately 100 miles, and a basic dictionary definition of “debilitating” is “causing serious impairment of strength or ability to function”. Digging deeper, under that definition, it would appear that the NCAA’s loophole argument in denying immediate eligibility that Hoffman’s mother’s condition is improving does not fit, either. If the medical documentation falls in line with Hoffman’s argument that his mother’s illness or injury constitutes a serious impairment of strength or ability to function, a reasonable person could conclude that her status is still debilitating.
This appellate flexibility can come with inconsistencies, though. Is that a good thing? Ironically, the 2012 adjustments that do concern this type of scenario were intended to address the inconsistent results in the waiver process. A couple other cases have added to the muddy waters in the transfer portal, too. During this off-season, Tate Martell and Justin Fields, two high-profile college football quarterbacks, sought and received residency requirement waivers using arguably less sentimental facts. Also, the NCAA announced a few revisions to the transfer rules last Friday, but none of the adjustments touch this type of scenario.
In conclusion, college sports fans can keep an eye on this case to see if the NCAA takes advantage of the opportunity to create some precedent for relatively comparable situations in the future and - fingers crossed - eventually lead to a guidelines/rules revision that has flexibility built within the rule or just nixes the restrictions altogether. When an immediate family member is seriously injured or ill, it places a huge weight of emotion on the family. If the NCAA cared about college athletes’ mental health, it would not try to govern on sensitive family-related matters like this when a kid wants to be closer to home so that it is easier to be with his family in trying times while continuing to carry on doing the things he did before.
[Note: I believe that this exemplifies why the transfer rules should be abandoned entirely because it unreasonably restricts the business of a college athlete’s talents because the anticompetitive effects severely outweigh any procompetitive reasons for “amateurism” in the NCAA’s current definition, but that is for another article.]
The NCAA fears this so-called “transfer portal” and assumes without evidence that the transfer waiver floodgates would open, but if it continues to act in a strangely unreasonably ignorant yet fully aware fashion, its rules will be its own demise. What do y’all think about this?