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Orlando Sanchez vs. NCAA: The 3:38 year

Dominican Republic's Orlando Sanchez, left, dribbles around Cuba's

Dominican Republic's Orlando Sanchez, left, dribbles around Cuba's Enrique Ramos during a FIBA Americas Championship basketball game in Mar de Plata, Argentina. (Aug. 30, 2011) Credit: AP

No matter how many times the NCAA reviews the eligibility case of St. John’s forward Orlando Sanchez, it keeps coming to back to the same conclusion – under a rule that says any organized basketball activity after the age of 21 constitutes a year of eligibility, the three-minute, 38-second appearance Sanchez made with the Dominican Republic national team in 2010 counts as one full year.

In NCAA math, 218 seconds equals 31,536,000 seconds of eligibility denied to Orlando Sanchez. At least, that’s the absurdist interpretation.

As Sanchez explained to a small group of reporters on Tuesday, the logic does not compute for him. “I’m sad,” Sanchez said. “It’s three minutes and 38 seconds. It’s nothing. How does this cost me my one year of eligibility? Only three minutes and 38 seconds that I represent my country. It was an honor. They always say to ‘do something for your country.’ It’s not making sense for me.”

St. John’s recently hired North Carolina attorney Robert F. Orr to represent Sanchez in his last-ditch appeal. Clearly, the recent availability of Sanchez, Orr and documents related to the case are part of a media campaign to garner public support and pressure the NCAA to take a common-sense approach to the enforcement of its rules as opposed to a strict literal interpretation.

It’s important to note that the 3:38 Sanchez played for his national team only represents the pretext for denying him a year of eligibility. In a broader context, the NCAA really has denied Sanchez because it doesn’t agree with his contention that a specific event necessitated his delayed college enrollment.

Sanchez claims he dropped out of high school in the 2005-06 school year because his grandmother no longer could afford the cost of school. He went to Spain to live with his father and work as a carpenter so he could send money home. Sanchez returned to the Dominican Republic in May, 2009 and completed his high school education over the next year, graduating at the age of 22.

He played eight games with a club team the summer of 2009 after his 21st birthday on May 26. That counted as one year of eligibility. He then went to Monroe College in the Bronx and played two seasons. The 3:38 he played with the national team in the summer of 2010 counts as his fourth season.

St. John’s claims the poverty faced by the Sanchez family was beyond his control, forcing him to drop out of school and go to Spain. The NCAA routinely gives waivers to players who perform a religious mission or enter the armed services, but it’s more difficult to quantify the “hardship” Sanchez faced.

In fact, Sanchez admits he was not the sole source of income for his grandmother when he went to Spain and certainly not after he returned. “We don’t have money for going to school,” Sanchez said. “It’s hard. I go to Spain to help my mom and my grandmom a little…It’s not much, but I try to do whatever I can.”

Asked the uncomfortable question of who has supported his grandmother the past four years since his return, Sanchez said, “I think my father continues to send money to her. But I don’t ask her about nothing. I don’t like asking.”

The purpose of over-21 eligibility rules is to prevent more seasoned players from giving a school an unfair advantage. So, the NCAA has constructed an artificial standard by which it judges “hardship.” It is applied unevenly at best, and it raises questions.

First, why should a young person have to prove “hardship” as a reason for leaving high school and postponing college? Second, in this case, the level of “organized basketball activity” in which Sanchez has engaged since he turned 21 doesn’t compare to the level of competition most of his teammates at St. John’s and players at schools across the country have engaged in via AAU travel programs.

Finally, the Sanchez case involves no allegations of payments or improper benefits. UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad, who was represented by Orr, had to pay back $1,800 earlier this year but then got the go-ahead to play from the NCAA.

When Sanchez first was denied the chance to play this season at St. John’s, he considered going home to the Dominican Republic, but coach Steve Lavin convinced him to stay and go to school while the case goes forward. When this school year ends, Sanchez said, he will be 23 credit hours short of a degree, and he currently has a 3.48 GPA.

The dream of being able to spend next school year at St. John’s is what keeps Sanchez, who turns 25 in May, going. Asked about his experience at Monroe, Sanchez lit up. “I feel good,” he said. “I have good times over there. When I play, a lot of people go in with their flags from the Dominican Republic, their [noisemakers], they make my life over there easy.”

Asked what he would say if he could speak directly to NCAA officials, Sanchez shrugged and said, “I only want to say ‘Please, let me play.’”

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