‘Absolutely maddening’: NCAA faces backlash from Jake Smith’s mother, Arizona Legislature over eligibility decision

Legislators, including Arizona Representative Joseph Chaplik, are urging the NCAA to reconsider its decision regarding Jake Smith’s eligibility and support athletes’ well-being. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – ASU wide receiver Jake Smith was looking forward to revitalizing his college football career in his home state after going three years without a single snap due to a series of injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic. But Smith will not suit up this season after the NCAA denied eligibility waivers to him and several other players across the country who arrived at their school as a result of a second career transfer.

Outside of Smith, few are as frustrated by the decision as his mother, Tina Smith, whose elation at the prospect of watching her son play close to home was truncated by the NCAA’s decision.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Tina said. “Especially for an organization that claims to exist to support the well-being of its athletes.”

Jake was required to seek a waiver for eligibility to play this season due to the NCAA Division I Council’s decision to tweak its transfer waiver guidelines in January, a month after Jake made his second transfer. That legislation enacted stricter protocols to grant eligibility waivers for two-time undergraduate transfers, but included an exemption for students who “demonstrated physical injury or illness or mental health condition that necessitated the student’s transfer.” The NCAA ruled that Jake’s case did not meet the standard.

After a standout high school career at Notre Dame Prep in Phoenix that culminated in being named Gatorade’s 2018 National Player of the Year, Jake committed to Texas as the 11th-highest-rated wide receiver nationwide, per 247Sports.

Jake caught six touchdowns in his first year with Texas but pulled in only three during a sophomore year impacted by an early-season hamstring injury. Jake’s troubles at Texas continued with a broken foot in the team’s first spring practice after the 2020 season. In June 2021, Jake announced he was transferring to USC.

Tina said USC informed Jake at his intake physical that his foot was not properly healed and needed another surgery. He was deemed a medical non-counter and never played a single down for the Trojans.

“He would never have made that first transfer [to USC] if he wasn’t operating under this huge misconception about the status of his physical health and eligibility,” Tina said.

After two years at USC, Jake entered the transfer portal a second time last December, this time landing at ASU with hopes of resuscitating his career in his return home. But after a full offseason of ramping up, the NCAA denied him eligibility just three weeks before ASU’s season began.

“This is all very well-documented with medical records that that first transfer [to USC] was rendered completely ineffectual,” Tina said. “Who looks at this fact pattern and thinks that a penalty is appropriate in the form of a third consecutive year out?”

The decision leaves ASU without his talents and presents another setback for a player who has spent years fighting to get back on the field.

“He was at a high in his life right now,” ASU coach Kenny Dillingham said at practice in August after the ruling. “For him to have to face that when he’s on an upward trajectory is the opposite of what college athletics is supposed to be.”

Speaking to The Athletic last week, NCAA President Charlie Baker defended the decision, noting that the rules were adopted by member schools and impact a small group of players.

“Look, you’re talking about less than one percent of all transfers,” Baker told The Athletic.

Baker’s remarks did not assuage critics, who saw him as lacking empathy for the athletes affected by the policy.

“I bet Mr. Baker would care if someone he cared about was in that ‘less than 1%,’” Tina said via email in response to Baker’s comments. “It’s absolutely maddening.”

Baker’s comments come after Arizona Representative Joseph Chaplik – whose district includes Notre Dame Prep – sent a letter to NCAA President Charlie Baker urging the NCAA to reconsider Jake’s case.

“The NCAA’s decision not only affects his career but also sets a precedent that we believe undermines its commitment to the well-being of student-athletes,” Chaplik said in a press release announcing the letter.

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The letter, which was co-signed by a bipartisan group of 35 legislators, insinuates actions made by Texas may have been involved in the circumstances that ultimately led to Jake’s multiple transfers.

“It is particularly concerning that UT appears to have encouraged Jake to play football even though his injuries had not healed,” the letter says. “To the extent the UT coaches or staff made questionable or unethical decisions, the NCAA should not punish Jake for those errors.”

Tina said she and her family are “happy and humbled” to have the support of the legislature, but there’s concern it may not be enough for the NCAA to consider overturning the ruling.

But she does maintain some hope.

“I want to believe that they are committed to the well-being of these student-athletes and that they do have their best interest at heart,” Tina said. “And if that’s the case, I don’t see how they don’t revisit this.”

Alex Wakefield(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Alex Wakefield expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Wakefield is a senior reporter for The State Press.