Let her go

Kansas State is one of my favorite schools. I am required by law to say this because my wife attended Kansas State; so did my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, some of my best friends and Darren Sproles. But it would be true anyway. I like Kansas State a lot because the place has this wonderful spirit, something I noticed the very first time I went there some 20 years ago. It’s not easy to get to, the weather is pretty lousy and there isn’t an overabundance of things to do in Manhattan, Kan. But the place has heart. It has a wonderful togetherness. It is a destination for the dreamers from those small Kansas towns like my wife’s Cuba, Kansas.

And Bill Snyder has pulled off the greatest turnaround in college football history, not once but twice.

It is in that spirit I tell you: I have absolutely no idea what Kansas State is doing in this bizarre Leticia Romero case. You may have read my friend Mechelle Voepel’s story and follow-up commentary on the Romero story ... I’ll try to sum up. Romero is a talented freshman basketball player who came to Kansas State from the Canary Islands. For the record, I just looked up Google Images of the Canary Islands -- this came up:

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I looked up Google Images of Manhattan, Kansas. This came up.

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Romero came to Kansas State because she she felt comfortable with the coaching staff. It is almost always this way for college athletes. The coach (and assistant coaches) is the person who represents the school -- it’s not the president or athletic director or dean of students. Most people probably agree that it is ridiculous how much college coaches get paid, but they are basically CEOs of their teams. They are entirely responsible not only for developing players and strategically using them to win games (and for marketing, fund-raising, construction) ... they are also responsible for actually recruiting the players in the first place. Everybody knows this. There is a con that the NCAA likes to use when trumping their inane transfer policies: “A player does not sign with the coach. A player signs with the school.” That look good on a billboard. But they KNOW it isn’t true. When John Calipari left Memphis for Kentucky, the best players followed him ... not because of their sudden love for country ham or the William T. Young library.

Anyway, Romero signed with Kansas State, and she proved to be a very good player her freshman year. She led the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. That was good for her but, generally speaking, when you have a freshman lead your team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals you are probably not going to be a very good team. Kansas State was not. They finished 11-19, their worst record since coach Deb Patterson took over the program back in 1996. I always liked Deb ... she moved to Kansas the same time I did, and she’s a passionate all-around sports fan, and she made women’s basketball matter at Kansas State by recruiting a bunch of small-town Kansas kids who could really play. But the team has been scuffling for a while. At the end of the season, Kansas State fired her.

At this point, the story deteriorates into a lot of he-said-she-said-they-said-we-said. The basic story is this: Romero decided she wanted to transfer and Kansas State denied her request. Mechelle has delved pretty deeply into the two sides on this -- Romero says she tried to feel comfortable with the new staff but (though she doesn’t blame them) it just didn’t feel like a match to her. Kansas State, via athletic director John Currie’s Twitter account, had concerns that involved: “outside tampering, undue influence by third parties or procedures not being followed in an honest and forthright manner." Kansas State isn’t talking beyond that.

Best I can tell -- and I’m guessing a little bit here -- Romero got caught in the middle of a somewhat nasty break-up between Kansas State and Deb Patterson. There have been people at Kansas State who have told me there’s “more to the story,” but I’m skeptical because, (1) they won’t tell me what “more” there is to the story; (2) people always seem to have some super-secretive “more to the story” when they start to look bad; (3) I simply don’t see what more there could be that would change these basic facts:

A. Leticia Romero is an 18-year-old kid from the Canary Islands who came to play basketball for Kansas State, a school she chose over numerous others. B. She felt comfortable with the coaching staff and played her heart out for a lousy team in a small Kansas town some 4,500 miles from home. C. The coaching staff was fired. D. She wanted to leave and take one of the many, many scholarship offers that are out there for her. E. The school said no, even while admitting that saying no to such a simple request was “rare.”

Everything else -- how she handled her transfer request, what her motivations might or might not be, the language gap, what secrets Kansas State holds, how involved the former staff was in convincing her to leave -- is speculation and, anyway, entirely beside the point. Look, I’ll come clean here: I don’t even think Kansas State SHOULD HAVE THE RIGHT to deny Leticia Romero free movement. There’s a lot of talk these days about college athletes being indentured servants ... the NCAA transfer rules fit the description. Why should Kansas State have the right to prevent her from transferring to another school that wants to give her a scholarship? Is it because of how much they are paying her? Oh yeah, they’re not paying here. Is it because a scholarship is a binding contract? No, not quite since scholarships go year-to-year and the school can take them away at more or less any time for any cockamamie reason. Is it because Kansas State has worked so hard to make her comfortable that she owes them? No, not even that -- they just fired the whole coaching staff that convinced her to leave Picture A above for Picture B above.

She played a year. She played well. She gave it a shot. She wants to leave and take a different scholarship. It is utterly un-American that Kansas State even has the power to stop her.

But they do have the power. And the fact they are yielding it is even worse. The reason I have long loved Kansas State is for that spirit I mentioned, that togetherness, that sense that school stands for something a little bit bigger. What possible reasoning could Currie and company have for treating a young athlete like this? Maybe you’re not happy she wants to leave. Maybe you feel like the previous staff poisoned her mind. Maybe you feel like she shouldn’t have gone to the press in desperation. What does any of that matter? She’s 19 (or will be in a few days), she came from the beaches to play for you, she played well and sparked interest in the program, she doesn’t feel comfortable there anymore. Let her go. How is this even a question? Let her go.

My guess is that Kansas State didn’t intend for it go this far. My guess is that when she first told the school she wanted to leave, Currie denied the request because he thought there was tampering from the previous staff involved and he fully expected her to change her mind. But then Romero made it clear, no, she really wanted to leave. At this point, Kansas State wasn’t going to keep her no matter what. They had two options: Make it easier on her to transfer or make it miserable for her to transfer.

So, they miserably chose Option B, sent her case into the red tape pipeline where Romero had to officially appeal. She is still learning English, she didn’t really understand the appeal process (which sounds kind of star chamberish anyway), her appeal was denied, she panicked and started looking for ways out (including talking to the press and hiring a lawyer). The school panicked as it became public. And then the whole thing just got stupid.

And that’s where it is now: Stupidville. No other word even can describe the sheer stupidity involved.

On Wednesday, Kansas State announced it could not give Romero her transfer even though now, apparently, John Currie is for it. Currie supposedly wrote a letter to the appeals committee asking them to reconsider. This is just plain stupid because Currie is the one who denied her request in the first place; he’s the only reason it even WENT to an appeals process. He’s the bleeping athletic director. He can’t give her the release now that he realizes he messed up? What?

But it gets even more stupid: Apparently at some point, someone at the school asked her for a list of schools and they would tell her which schools they would release her to. She gave them a list of 100 schools. ONE HUNDRED. Kansas State, she says, denied them all.

But then it gets even MORE stupid. Look at this: Because of a clerical error, Kansas State mistakenly gave Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro permission to contact Romero. Yes: A clerical error. Kansas State attempted to retract permission but the NCAA said, “Uh, no, you can’t do that.” It’s pretty astonishing when the NCAA with all its corruption in leadership actually says, “No, even we won’t go that far.” There is a thought now that Romero will visit Murfreesboro. Nobody knows if Kansas State would actually let her go.

Here, for the record, is a Google image of Murfreesboro. It could be Manhattan.

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It’s a clown act. And it is so unnecessary. It’s so unlike what Kansas State is supposed to be. My wife Margo talks about growing up in little Cuba Kansas, population 250, with its annual Rock-A-Thon (where people rock in rocking chairs) to raise money for city improvement and the little school with the new gym (since closed) and the Cuba Cash Store for a few groceries when you couldn’t make the long drive to Belleville or Concordia ... and she talks about how Kansas State meant the world to her. It meant something more than just a college to her. She had a purple car when we met ... because of Kansas State. That was the place that allowed her to dream big.

“Why won’t they just let her go?” Margo asked me after reading Michelle’s stories. There’s just no good answer for that. And I have to tell you: If Kansas State loses Margo, they’ve pretty much lost everything.