By Todd Golden
TERRE HAUTE — If there’s one thing many of us have learned through life experience, it’s that no one should ever judge the way someone else grieves.
Grief doesn’t follow a plan. Grief doesn’t stay faithful to a timeline. Grief can’t be codified. Grief is never, ever a one-size-fits-all proposition.
Sadly, Indiana State men’s basketball player Jake Kelly knows this better than anyone … and he’s learned it at a very young age. His mother, Julia Kelly, tragically died in a Florida plane crash in June 2008.
In its position governing collegiate athletics, the NCAA has to codify many things that would seem beyond the reach of a cold paragraph in a rulebook. The organization draws constant criticism for what’s deemed as heavy-handedness in issues that are rarely black-and-white propositions.
Thank goodness the NCAA decided that its long reach doesn’t extend to the grieving process. The organization did the right thing to grant Kelly his hardship waiver on Thursday.
To have gone the other way would have been callous in the extreme. In essence, the NCAA would have determined a timeline for grief had it denied Kelly’s hardship waiver, an unacceptable notion.
Cold though it may be, an argument can be made that Kelly could have transferred before the 2008-09 season. It was at the heart of the matter as the NCAA deliberated Kelly’s waiver request.
Weighing a transfer — a major life decision in its own right — was not where Kelly was in his grieving process at the time. The NCAA was wise to give credence to that.
“Last summer when she died, it was very tough on me. It didn’t really hit me until I was midway through the season at Iowa. I kind of waited, I didn’t know what to do. It was really tough for me all season last year. Finally, during Christmas Break last year, I talked it over with my family and decided it was the right thing to come back to Terre Haute,” Kelly added.
Kelly’s words should have been enough to go on, but the NCAA had not dealt with a case where the time lag between a tragedy and the timing of the transfer was so far apart.
“Normally, in these types of cases, the kid does transfer right away. They have documentation from a psychologist saying the kid needs to move home, or, the kid has direct care responsibilities for a sibling, a parent or a grandparent, and normally, those are granted. In this case, Jake didn’t need anyone to tell him how to grieve,” ISU Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance Joel McMullen said.
“The NCAA said if I would have transferred right away, they would have given [the waiver] to me, no questions asked,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t in the mind-set to make a decision like that at that time.”
Once Kelly announced his decision to move from Iowa to ISU in March and completed a class he needed to be eligible for transfer, the waiting began. It was hard on Kelly who said he’s always turned to basketball as a way of coping with other things in his life.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was 5, and it’s tough to think it might be taken away. I would have been tough to know I’d have to watch the guys when I knew I could be out there competing with them,” he said. “I’m appreciative and glad to be playing for the Sycamores this year. I really think it’s going to help me out through my grieving. Basketball has always been a way out for me, so to have a chance to play is going to be good for me.”
Kelly is grateful now, but it was a long, hard wait.
“As soon as I sent my papers into ISU, I was like, ‘This shouldn’t be too much longer.’ I had a class I had to take in the summer, so that prolonged it. When I got to school here, it was a unique case [the NCAA] had to think over,” Kelly said.
“The NCAA sympathized with my situation, but wanted to make a decision that was right for their organization, which I understand. But after a while, I was like, ‘its got to be this week.’ Almost by the time I was giving up on it, I was told I could play,” he added.
ISU coach Kevin McKenna admired the way Kelly remained patient and handled his grief through a process which would play a huge role in determining not only his basketball career, but his life in general.
“I still have my mother, so I can’t even imagine how I would have been at that age if I had lost her. It’s amazing the strength the kids have, he’s done a phenomenal job coping with his loss,” McKenna said.
Kelly’s patience was not only a virtue for him, but he opened the door for other athletes who m
“It opens up the door for kids down the road to deal with grief they way they feel the need to do with it. We’re benefiting from this at ISU, but in the end, Jake benefits the most,” McMullen said. “Jake’s the one who’s been through the tragedy. We just tried to facilitate his desires.”
“Fortunately, the NCAA made the right decision. This case, unfortunate though it is, will help kids be able to move on with their lives and transfer if that’s what they feel they need to do,” McMullen said.
The NCAA did the right thing — it stayed out the way. Determining grief is a business no business should be dabbling in.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.