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Editorial: UNM, NCAA can’t afford to keep a waiver secret

News last month that the NCAA is allowing University of New Mexico basketball player Anthony Mathis a fifth year of athletic eligibility was quite a gift to Lobo land.

Unfortunately, it’s a gift both the college and the association seem to want accepted without question.

Move along, sports fans and taxpayers, nothing to see here.

Mathis, a talented shooting guard and leading scorer, had already put in four seasons with the Lobos by the time his waiver was announced last month. The NCAA practically never extends athletic eligibility for more than four years, aside from granting redshirt years due to injury or some significant family hardship. If and when the NCAA decides to waive the rule for a particular player, the public almost always knows why.

But Mathis hasn’t suffered an injury or been enmeshed in family hardship – at least, not to public knowledge. The waiver centers around his sophomore year, when coach Craig Neal played him a sparse 64 minutes throughout the entire season. With such limited playing time that year, Mathis might have been eligible for a waiver under association rules, except for the fact he played two games after the season midpoint.

Still, UNM and coach Paul Weir pursued a waiver based on that season – and won. Something tipped the scales in Mathis’ favor in the eyes of the NCAA; we just don’t know what it was.

UNM and the NCAA have refused to release information about why Mathis’ appeal for a waiver was granted; UNM hasn’t granted public records requests that would shed light on the situation; and Mathis hasn’t been allowed to speak to the media himself, despite a weeks-old promise of a press conference. The refusals come despite the fact that reasons for a waiver are often made public by schools – especially in the cases of high-profile players.

There are a few reasons why all this secrecy is so disturbing.

First, the four-year rule is an important one. It’s in place to ensure that schools don’t stack their lineups with fifth- and sixth-year athletes avoiding graduation to lengthen their college careers.

But equally important to Mathis’ situation is recent Lobos history. The little information that has been released indicates that the heart of the NCAA’s ruling had to do with something that went wrong for Mathis in that sophomore year when he had so little court time.

FYI, that’s the same lackluster season that ended with the firing of then-head Coach Neal. Neal was sacked after a number of scholarship players, including Mathis, said they wanted out. After Neal’s ouster, Mathis decided to stay after all. In what has become a New Mexico tradition, UNM bought out Neal’s contract for a cool $1 million.

If the NCAA has determined that during Neal’s tenure Mathis was treated so poorly as to deserve a fifth year, it could raise questions about whether the university should have simply terminated the hoops coach instead of handing him a seven-figure parting gift.

So who is this silence protecting? And why? Right now, there are more questions than answers.

And in today’s controversy-riddled era of college athletics – think Louisiana State University recruitment scandal, the University of Arizona bribery investigation, or, closer to home, the Lobos’ Scotland golf junket – they’re not questions UNM or the NCAA can afford to ignore.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.