Copyright 2017 The Evansville Courier Co.
All Rights Reserved
Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)
An adult somewhere made a mistake, and then a group of adults made a different kind of mistake and now it's a kid who pays the price. The kid is Bryant Fitzgerald, an Indiana University freshman from Avon. The adults work for IU, and for the NCAA.
The story is galling, and more disturbing than you know. I'll explain that in a minute, but first let's talk some more about what already is well-known — because it's disturbing enough — and how this story has faded away too quietly.
Everyone seems to be moving on, because really, what else is there to say? Someone in the IU compliance department screwed up, and because of it Fitzgerald is ineligible as a freshman safety on the IU football team. Indiana filed an appeal with the NCAA. Two weeks ago the NCAA rejected it. Case closed, I guess. Who do the Hoosiers play this week, anyway? Oh yes. They visit Virginia.
Fitzgerald won't play. Won't even make the trip. Can't, under NCAA rules. He has been so ostracized, so wronged, he can't even practice this season. He can regain his eligibility for the 2018 season and ultimately play all four years, but he has lost his redshirt year, because 2017 is it. The NCAA did throw him a bone, and it's a nice bone, let's be clear: The NCAA let Fitzgerald have his scholarship for the 2017-18 school year, which it didn't have to do.
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, did exactly what a recruit is supposed to do while still in high school: seek qualifying advice from his future college. Someone at IU gave him incorrect information, he followed it, and voila: Ineligible. To IU's credit, the school dived onto the sword and accepted blame, announced changes to beef up its compliance staff, even scolded the NCAA for not giving Fitzgerald a break.
And here, I'm scolding the NCAA too. It exists at the pleasure of colleges and universities, yes, but the NCAA loudly trumpets its loyalties to the student-athlete.
Very quietly, with nobody looking, the NCAA could have ended this before it became a story by telling this particular student-athlete: What happened here wasn't your fault. We'll punish the school, not you. Have fun this season, young man.
Instead, the NCAA enrolled Bryant Fitzgerald in a course called: Life Isn't Fair 101.
The NCAA had the leeway here to let Fitzgerald play this season while docking IU a scholarship — you know, make the guilty party pay. Alas, IU has all its scholarships, and Bryant Fitzgerald has all this free time.
Fitzgerald remains in Bloomington, even if he did have the chance, again, to abandon IU.
Almost nine months earlier, other schools were interested in him when the Hoosiers unexpectedly changed coaches. Fitzgerald hadn't signed with IU yet, was only committed, and was one of the prized catches — the state's top defensive back, according to us here at IndyStar — in an IU recruiting class that needed just one domino to topple before it possibly fell apart.
Fitzgerald didn't topple. Didn't even wobble. He told his people at Avon not to bother him with details about other schools. For Bryant Fitzgerald, there was no other school. Only IU. Even now, even as an unnamed adult at IU made a mistake that will forever brand Fitzgerald as an academic nonqualifier — the details will fade over time, but the words "nonqualifier" are forever — Fitzgerald has stayed loyal to Indiana.
"He's handled this thing so well," Avon coach Mark Bless was telling me a few days ago.
Isn't it funny, I remember telling Bless in response, how sometimes the kid is the only adult in the story?
None of the adults is talking on the record, by the way, nobody but the Avon football coach, in part because a student's academic information is federally protected and also because everyone wishes this story would just go away. It makes the NCAA look bad, and it makes IU look worse. The school isn't making Bryant Fitzgerald available to the media, either, which is fine by me. The kid's been through enough.
But it's your loss, and mine, because IndyStar preps insider Kyle Neddenriep tells me Bryant is a neat kid, an engaging interview and a really good quote. One of the first times they spoke at length, Bryant had just committed to IU. It was January 2016 and he told Neddenriep that the formidable Kelley School of Business was a selling point for IU. And he said this, speaking by phone from campus:
"This has been my childhood dream to go here, and I'm excited to be here," Fitzgerald said. "This is my home."
The adults in this story, they're not perfect. Because this isn't the first time an IU mistake has led to an incoming freshman being ruled ineligible.
It happened last year, too.
You don't know that story because the crisis was averted at the 11th hour, but an error within the IU athletic department contributed to an incoming freshman in 2016 facing ineligibility.
I won't tell you the kid's name or sport, because privacy matters, but just know this: IU declared the kid ineligible in 2016 and then appealed to the NCAA. The situations in 2016 and '17 are similar but not identical, and IU's appeal last year was based on reasons beyond its internal mistake. The NCAA restored that kid's eligibility.
But enough about the adults in this story; they've screwed it up enough. Let me tell you about the kid. Let me tell you some more about Bryant Fitzgerald.
Three days after learning that his freshman season was gone courtesy of an IU mistake, Fitzgerald attended the Aug. 22 Avon-Ben Davis game. He was there to see his old school, for sure, but he was also there to see Ben Davis quarterback Reese Taylor, one of the state's top-rated recruits. Taylor has committed to Indiana. After the game, Fitzgerald sought him out to assure him: I'll be waiting for you.
Rare, isn't it, when a story has a victim and a hero — and it's the same person?
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter: @GreggDoyelStar or at facebook.com/gregg.doyel.
Read More of Today's AB Headlines
Subscribe to Our Daily E-Newsletter