When St. Joseph's basketball player Todd O'Brien requested a release to play the sport for one season as a graduate student at another school, the easy thing for the university to do would have been to give it to him.
Seems as though it would have even been the smart thing, too, if St. Joseph's had been looking ahead to the court of public opinion.
But what about the right thing? Here, it gets murky.
O'Brien is this week's poster child for athlete's rights, or lack of them in the NCAA, since St. Joseph's declined to give him that release. He is at Alabama-Birmingham, practicing with the team, but he can't play this season because the NCAA turned down his appeal. On Monday, O'Brien blasted St. Joe's and coach Phil Martelli in a first-person SI.com piece, and journalists around the country took to their computers to stomp on St. Joe's, which isn't giving an inch on this issue and, in fact, issued a statement Monday that ended by saying the school "considers the matter closed."
O'Brien's attorney, Don Jackson, said in an interview Tuesday night that they are considering suing Martelli and St. Joseph's in Alabama court, that the school has offered "no valid justification" for keeping O'Brien from playing.
There seems to be more to this case than we know right now, since at least five other St. Joe's players have transferred in the last three years, including several others this year, and it's my understanding that the school granted a release in every other case. The Hawks have lost a couple of top players to transfers over the years and always signed the release. O'Brien himself was a transfer into the school, from Bucknell. How could St. Joseph's take him in but not let him out?
After starting 28 games in 2009-10, the 6-foot-11 center didn't start any games last season and was 10th on the team in minutes played. O'Brien said he was allowed to take part in the graduation ceremony at St. Joseph's but still had to complete three courses in the summer to officially graduate.
O'Brien, who told St. Joe's of his decision to transfer in July, didn't hold back in his portrayal of Martelli, making him out to be spiteful, writing of the coach: "After calling me a few choice words, he informed me that he would make some calls so that I would be dropped from my summer class and would no longer graduate."
Martelli didn't respond to a request to talk. (See lawsuit talk, above.) The school offered no information beyond several statements. Jackson said O'Brien wasn't going to talk for this story, either.
I did talk to somebody who knows several of the principals in this, who was quite confident that Martelli and the athletic department had gone to bat for O'Brien on multiple fronts to help get him to his degree. Also that it goes beyond O'Brien's telling them of his plans at a late date, too late to recruit another player. (The Hawks were down to 10 scholarship players before O'Brien left.) It sounds as if there is a lot of frustration so that lawyers have advised against anyone's saying much of anything. O'Brien did end up taking the classes he needed to graduate.
Jackson said he had a conversation with Martelli in October, and the coach said "he considered Todd one of the most disloyal players he had ever coached, if not the most disloyal."
An economics major at St. Joseph's, O'Brien said he didn't have the required courses to get into St. Joseph's MBA program. He is in a public administration graduate program at UAB. "Anyone who knows me knows I want to get into real-estate development," he said on a CBSSports.com podcast Tuesday.
The SI.com first-person account didn't mention O'Brien's role in an incident last season that reportedly involved a stolen laptop and resulted in a teammate's leaving the school. The Daily News had reported last February that O'Brien "was apparently peripherally involved with the laptop situation and after the fact."
"The school thought that I had some involvement in it," O'Brien said on the podcast. "They opened an investigation. The school did not let me play while they were doing their investigation. . . . At the end, the school concluded I had very minimal involvement. I was reinstated immediately." Jackson said, "He was cleared of all that," calling it "an irrelevant issue."
On the podcast, O'Brien said of the notion that his character should be questioned: "I think my coaches down here, people that actually know me, can vouch for my character. I'm not a criminal. I'm not a bad person." He then added, "I'm not Tim Tebow." He understood people's loyalty to St. Joe's, he said, but thought the episode was being used to "villainize" him.
From every angle, people are trying to figure this out. Why did Martelli make his stand this time? Why would St. Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia, a guy who is known for recognizing the larger issues involved in his business, decline to sign the release, fully realizing his school wouldn't be saying much and O'Brien could choose to say a lot?
Questions worth asking, even if the answers are hidden in the murkiness.