The tallest player in college basketball, 7-foot-6 University of Central Florida freshman Tacko Fall, is not yet cleared by the NCAA, and the news has left the young man from Senegal confused, angry and determined to fight, according to people close to him.
You ought to feel the same way.
The news that Fall is not yet cleared, first reported Tuesday by ESPN, is despite the fact that Fall, a 19-year-old engineering student who had a 3.6 grade-point average in high school and is excelling so far in college, endured a harrowing journey from his home country to the United States.
Since last Friday, he hasn’t been allowed to practice with his team. His eligibility for this week’s season opener – as well as next week’s matchup with the only other 7-foot-6 player in college hoops, Mamadou N’Diaye, a Senegalese player for UC-Irvine – not to mention Fall’s entire season, appears up in the air.
All of this serves as yet another example of how the NCAA continues to fall short of its stated philosophy of putting student-athletes first and treating each eligibility case as unique.
“We’ve reached a pretty desperate point with the NCAA,” said Mandy Wettstein, an Orlando woman who, along with her husband and two daughters, became the host family and guardian for Fall two years ago. Fall was brought to the United States at age 15 by a handler, and he ended up spending time in six states before finally finding a home with Wettstein’s family.
“We’ve always been told they take into account the extenuating circumstances surrounding a kid. But they’re not,” Wettstein said.
An NCAA spokesman declined to comment.
Here are the extenuating circumstances, according to a five-page letter Fall wrote to the NCAA to appeal his eligibility ruling: Fall grew up poor even by Senegalese standards, sleeping on a mat in a one-bedroom apartment in Dakar with his mother and younger brother. He wrote of eating one meal a day growing up, rice and vegetables. He wore taped-together sandals. He had no extras in life. He played soccer – never basketball – but since there are no athletic scholarships in Senegal, he focused more on his studies.
His mother owned a clothing store but had to shutter it after a dispute with her business partner.
“We had some very dark days that I do not like to remember or think about, but our faith was strong,” Fall wrote. “It was around that time that I went to a public park with some friends and we were playing around on the basketball court. I had never played before. A few days later, I went back to the park and was approached by a man who asked if I was interested in learning to play basketball. I told him he needed to speak with my mother.”
He joined a Senegalese basketball academy and soon enough found himself on an airplane for the first time in his life, headed to Texas. A man who engineered Fall’s journey to the United States – Wettstein ask that he not be named, per Fall’s wishes – placed Fall in an apartment with another Senegalese basketball player. Although the man promised the two boys would go to school immediately, they didn’t. Instead they stayed isolated in the apartment. After a few weeks, the man, who was Fall’s original host parent, enrolled Fall in a charter school in Houston.
It was not a good school, Fall wrote in his statement, with gangs and violence, but the boys stayed enrolled there for the 2012-13 school year. The man then shopped the boys to three other schools and had them play for his summer league team. The schools did not accept them because of issues with the boys’ I-20 visas, paperwork needed for immigrants to attend American schools.
Fall finally found his way to Liberty Christian Prep in Florida, a school that promised to work through his visa issues and helped hook him up with his host family, Mandy Wettstein and her husband, Davis Talmage.
It’s insane to us, beyond all comprehension, that the NCAA is about to do this to this kid.
-- Mandy Wettstein, Fall's host family mother
“Tacko’s journey is really unique,” Wettstein said. “It’s insane to us, beyond all comprehension, that the NCAA is about to do this to this kid.”
Liberty Christian has never had a Division I athlete before, Wettstein said, so it has been put under an extended NCAA certification process that will encompass two years.
Wettstein said Fall plans to sue the NCAA if he is not declared eligible, and UCF is filing an eligibility waiver Wednesday with the NCAA on Fall’s behalf. If accepted, it would make him immediately eligible.
“We’re exploring every option available to us to support Tacko through this process,” a UCF spokesman said.
Fall’s ordeal is an example of several big problems in big-money college athletics: The fact that a teenage kid fell into a net of irresponsible adult “handlers” who jerked the boy around; and the fact that the NCAA has tried to put Fall’s case into a box when really it ought to be treated as unique – and ought to be sped along.
“They are dragging this out until the 11th hour,” Wettstein said. “Right now they are just throwing up roadblocks.”
The NCAA has a role here, and an important one. Students with sham academic records ought to be put under scrutiny. That is part of the integrity of the scholar-athlete system.
But this instance is different. A peek at Fall’s high school transcript shows he’s a high-achieving student. This is a kid who has faced countless obstacles just to make it to the United States – and now he’s being put through an unnecessary bureaucratic ringer. This is a basketball player with an enormous amount of potential who in theory is the NCAA poster boy: a possibly elite basketball player who merely wants to use basketball to get an education, something he couldn’t get back home.
He is the definition of a scholar-athlete.
This is a case of the American dream being offered to a kid, and ripped away.
So please, NCAA: Do the right thing. Take action. Let this kid play basketball. And do it now.