By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
Just five days after competing in six events at the Summit League Indoor Championships, Sami Spenner went to the U.S. Track and Field Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, N.M. and cemented her reputation as one of Division I’s best athletes.
On Feb. 25, she was named the Field MVP at the conference championships. March 1 Spenner finished fourth in the pentathlon and bested her own school record with a final score of 4,271 points.
Spenner’s result in Albuquerque was just 207 points behind winner Sharon Day, last summer’s runner-up at the Olympic Trials. Weeks later Day went on to wear the red, white and blue and compete in the 2012 London Games.
But despite those facts, the NCAA denied UNO’s request to grant Spenner a waiver to compete in any NCAA championship events. Steve Smith, the head coach of UNO track and field, likens the NCAA’s handling of Spenner to the football program at Southern Methodist receiving the death penalty in 1987
“Sami’s career is getting treated the same as SMU’s football program getting the death penalty,” Smith said. “The NCAA can call it what they want and they can give reasons for what they want, [but] there are no logical reasons. It doesn’t help the school, it doesn’t help the team, it doesn’t help the athletes, [and] it doesn’t help the NCAA. The only thing it does is hurt a team or an athlete.”
Spenner’s score at the U.S. Indoor Championships was the second-best score in all of Division I this year. The nation’s top mark in the outdoor heptathlon for 2013 is 5,243 points held by Ali Worthen at Seattle Pacific.
Spenner has already passed that mark once in her career. At the 2012 Drake Relays she put up a school record 5,593 points, a number that was also second-best in the whole country.
There’s no reason to think Spenner won’t be able to continue an already strong season and beat last year’s mark in the 2013 outdoor season. In the last two months alone she’s already broken the pentathlon school record twice.
In addition, Spenner has won The Summit League award for Female Athlete of the Week after every meet she’s competed in, and she’s won Female Athlete of the Month both times the award has been given away. Yet with all her wins, all her records and all her accolades the NCAA can’t help but shove its rule book in Spenner’s face.
The NCAA was more than happy to take UNO’s $1.4 million Division I application fee but can’t seem to find the time to review Spenner’s case. Granted, the case was reviewed but how long committee members deliberated we’ll never know.
Anyone with the ability to read can look at Spenner’s case and recognize how special it is within a matter of moments. The only way the NCAA could review UNO’s argument and all the facts presented and still return a decision of denial comes down to one of two things: either they didn’t really look or they don’t really care.
“They didn’t have any examples, and in fact through the course of our research we couldn’t come up with any either,” said the athletic department’s Director of Compliance Matt Jakobsze. “Part of our mitigating circumstances is she’s that unique. There aren’t any other instances where reclassifying institutions had a team or student-athlete of this caliber. So it won’t set a bad precedent in that sense.”
Reclassification is the reason the NCAA pointed to and likely the reason that will continue to come up. But as Smith said, it’s hard to understand how keeping Spenner out of competing in the national championship does any good for anyone.
After speaking to Jakobsze it was clear the athletic department was doing everything in their power to make sure Spenner’s inclusion didn’t cause hardship to anyone else.
Jakobsze indicated UNO would decline any team points Spenner may earn during competition. Student-athletes who compete in national championships are reimbursed for travel, food and lodging. UNO said they’d pick up the check.
The university even went so far as to decline individual points for Spenner, meaning she could compete but wouldn’t win any trophy regardless of her final score. None of those concessions were good enough for college sports’ governing body.
Although UNO presented several good ideas for getting Spenner in, the only legitimate gripe the NCAA could come back with, other than reclassification, is participation numbers.
Normally the NCAA limits the number of competitors for an event at 16. In recent years the NCAA has followed that rule while also including a rule which capped total participation at 284 athletes.
The idea was to allow more competitors in when some of those competitors qualified in more than one event. It didn’t seem fair when an athlete who was good enough to participate in three or four events would take three or four spots away from other athletes right on the cutoff line.
Setting the total participation number at 284 means an athlete such as Spenner, who would qualify in the heptathlon, long jump and triple jump, would actually increase the number of student-athletes who get to go to the national championship.
However, for the 2012-2013 academic year the rule was changed back to allow just the top 16 for each event. There were no exceptions included to add more athletes in order to get to the 284 number.
Thus the NCAA can say Spenner’s inclusion would take the spot of three other athletes.
But in a normal situation, without reclassification hanging over her head, Spenner would take the spots of three other athletes any ways because, wait for it, she’s better than they are. Isn’t that the whole idea behind creating qualification standards and holding championship events?
Why does the NCAA bother to sanction meets and get hundreds of athletes together if not to find out who’s the best?
“Our argument on appeal is even if she did go she’s earned it,” Jakobsze said. “Someone else who’s number 15 or 16 right now…that’s just the nature of competition. It would be one thing if she was just on the cusp, but she’s better than those people and she’s proven it so far.”
What might be the saddest part of the whole ordeal is how the NCAA is failing to recognize the story that is Sami Spenner. National rankings, event wins and conference awards aside Spenner is a unique individual who’s had one heck of a unique collegiate career.
When she started, Spenner wasn’t even a track athlete. She started on a volleyball scholarship at Wayne State in 2009, but decided to leave the game and seek a transfer into the UNO track and field program.
Although she initially chose a different path, Assistant Coach Chris Richardson has said he knew exactly who he was dealing with when Spenner came calling. At the 2009 Nebraska State Track and Field Meet, Spenner impressed by taking home third place in the long jump and triple jump, second place in the 200 meters and she ran a leg of the first place 4×100 relay team.
Her efforts helped Class C-1 Columbus Scotus earn a state championship. The most remarkable part about all of it was Spenner had just switched from soccer to track that very season.
She’s got the uncanny ability to pick up something new, apply herself and get better at it than everyone around her in a remarkably short period of time.
Unfortunately, UNO’s own conference expressed the same concerns about Spenner getting a shot in the national championships. Jakobsze said The Summit League was contacted and UNO was told they’d have to deal with the rules in place.
Jakobsze said the conference has done everything in their power to help. But Jakobsze is in a position where criticizing the conference would be inappropriate.
I have no problem saying it certainly doesn’t feel like The Summit League is doing enough. And for that matter neither is UNO.
The athletic department did what it could do legally by filing a request for a waiver. But where’s the social campaign to put pressure on the NCAA. Where’s the Facebook page, the free t-shirts or the Twitter hashtag #letSammiIn? Chances are you wouldn’t even know about this if you hadn’t read it in The Gateway or the Omaha World Herald.
The university needs to start raising awareness at other sporting events and create some sort of marketing campaign to get the word out. There’s got to be a way to convince the NCAA that Spenner is such an outstanding athlete that allowing her in won’t create a precedent that’s likely to come up very often.
Let’s take her top score for the year and make it a threshold. Call it the Spenner rule. Athletes in the future who are in a similar situation will only be allowed a waiver if they equal or beat her 2013 mark.
Since last year’s score was second-best in the country, and this year’s score is likely to be at or above that mark, this isn’t a situation the NCAA will have to deal with very often. They may not have to deal with it ever again.
Whether UNO will make a bigger push once the outdoor season kicks into full gear is uncertain. Whether or not more pressure would influence the NCAA to change their mind is even more uncertain.
What is certain is the lack of credibility the 2013 national championships will have without Sami Spenner on the competition list. I know that if I were a competitor I couldn’t claim any title as legitimate if Spenner wasn’t on the track that day.