Seton Hall's Daisha Simmons has embraced fight for student-athletes' rights

BY Reid Forgrave • October 22, 2014

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – It was the day before Daisha Simmons, the Seton Hall transfer who over the past few weeks has become the face of the movement for student-athletes’ rights, had to face a phalanx of reporters at Big East media day this week at Madison Square Garden. She was not looking forward to it. She’s not really much of a talker, but in recent days she hasn’t been able to keep her name out of the news.

Since this past May, the 23-year-old Jersey City native has been through a rollercoaster. First was the decision to transfer from Alabama, from where she’d already graduated but had not been accepted into the school’s MBA program. She was accepted into Seton Hall’s MBA program – which, unlike Alabama’s, has a concentration in her chosen field of sports management – and with a year of eligibility left was planning to work toward her degree while playing for the Pirates and head coach Anthony Bozzella.

More important, she’d be only a 20-minute drive from home. That’s a key point for two reasons: One, her mother doesn’t drive, so Daisha often helps by taking her to her two jobs at the post office and at Target. And two, her older brother, Chaz Ranson, has End Stage Renal Disease, is on the waiting list for a kidney transplant and gets dialysis treatments three times a week.

Then, a problem: Since Daisha Simmons had already transferred once before – to Alabama after her freshman year at Rutgers – the school had the opportunity to block her transfer. And Alabama did so.

“I called Alabama and told them, ‘It’s going to get ugly – I’m telling you this is going to happen,’ ” Bozzella said. “They just listened to me a little too late.”

Instead of listening to the Seton Hall coach and releasing Simmons from her commitment right away, Alabama blocked her path.

In the world of politics, this is known as “bad optics.” It made Alabama – and by extension the NCAA, which makes the rules on transfers – look like a villain. One reason was the obviously extenuating circumstances of Simmons’ transfer. The transfer rule is often abused – waivers to ensure a player doesn’t have to sit out a season are obtained for the silliest of reasons, and more college players transferred this season than ever before – but cases like Simmons’ were the reason the waiver rule exists in the first place.

Adding to the egregiousness is the fact Simmons’ high school coach – Mergin Sina, whose son, Jaren, is a point guard on Seton Hall’s men’s team – took his high school team to Tuscaloosa to assist in cleanup efforts after the 2011 tornado there. Sina reached out to Alabama on Simmons’ behalf, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

But what made this an especially bad look for Alabama and for America’s amateur sports system was that it highlighted the imbalance of power between the powers that be and student-athletes.

Then the voices started. Swish Appeal, a WNBA and women’s college basketball website, highlighted Simmons’ story. So did ESPNW. Jay Bilas – one of the great forces for good in the fight for student-athletes to get a bigger share of the power dynamic in college sports – tweeted about Simmons’ case frequently. So did Dick Vitale.

Eventually, the public pressure was too much for Alabama, and the school relented. The NCAA immediately approved Simmons’ waiver request, and she’ll be able to play for Seton Hall this season. Hopefully she’ll get her MBA and move toward one of her next goals: Playing professional basketball or opening a gym to teach the game to kids in Jersey City.

“People always question student-athletes, but why don’t people question coaches?” Simmons told me this week. “A lot of coaches go from university to university all the time. Why can’t we? It is about the bigger picture. At some point it becomes bigger than Daisha Simmons, and it becomes about student-athletes’ rights.”

She paused and took a swig from an orange Gatorade.

“If we were treated right, this wouldn’t happen.”

She was in the women’s basketball offices after a morning weightlifting session: bench press, squats, dumbbell press. She was weary. It wasn’t her regular life that had been so tiring: the graduate classes, the basketball practice, the driving her brother to and from dialysis appointments, the driving her mother to and from her two jobs. She sleeps at her Seton Hall apartment only two nights a week, after she has night classes; the rest of her time she stays back home.

The weariness has come from the added stress of her uncertain status in recent months. It’s this ordeal that’s been exhausting, the price of becoming a symbol for something bigger.

“Having my family’s personal business out there, that’s the worst part,” Simmons said. “Me personally, I’m a very private and closed person. To have my family business out there, it was overwhelming.”

“My brother said he was proud of me for standing up and fighting this thing,” she continued. “My mom was really upset about it, about the fact Alabama was blocking me to play.”

There was anger, sure: Anger at Alabama coach Kristy Curry, who’d replaced the coach who had recruited Simmons, and who had blocked her transfer. Anger at the whole situation, where people she’d trusted turned into people who were blocking her way. Anger at the fact her basketball scholarship wasn’t guaranteed – it was renewed on an annual basis – but her loyalty to the program was presumed.

But amid the anger, there was also a lesson.

“Sometimes, you just gotta keep fighting,” she said. “Sometimes the route you have to take isn’t going to be the easiest route.

“It’s a lot, but God doesn’t put more on you than you can bear,” she said. “My mom is a really strong woman. I get that from her. And a lot of people are put here for a reason. Hopefully this situation helps out another student-athlete from going through what I went through.”

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.


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