At the NCAADivision III 10,000-meter final last Thursday the University of Chicago teamwas chanting, "Where's Nick? Where's Nick?"
And the team fromWashington University wore white T-shirts, reading, WHERE'S NICK?
And people in thestands were whispering to each other, "Hey, where's Nick?"
Well, where wasNick?
Nick End, a22-year-old Carnegie Mellon senior, was sitting in his apartment, wishing hewere dead. After all, he had one of the nation's best 10,000-meter times thisyear in Division III. He was last year's University Athletic Associationchampion. He'd been running five miles every morning and 10 to 15 every night,through three throat infections, a dozen injuries, snow, sleet and wind. Oneday a dog bit him, and he ran nine more miles before he went to the emergencyroom.
So what the hellwas Nick doing sitting at home?
Thinking about atiny, slippery mouse and a dumb, stubborn elephant, that's what.
See, his trackcoach accidentally clicked the wrong button with his mouse on the online entryform and entered Nick in the 5,000-meter race for the NCAA nationals instead ofthe 10,000. Only Nick didn't qualify in the 5,000.
The coach, DarioDonatelli, didn't realize his mistake until the next morning. But the field wasstill marked "unofficial" on the website. No problem. He got hold ofthe selection committee chairman, Josh Payne, and told him about the goof."Will you change it for me?"
This is whereyou're going to want to start chewing on a table leg.
Payne said no, hecouldn't change it. He said the coach had 12 hours to correct his mistake butdidn't, and that, even though the committee hadn't finalized the field of 17,there was nothing he could do.
Donatelli starteddialing like crazy. The NCAA said that even though it knew there could be noharm in putting Nick in the field, and even though it was an honest mistake,and even though as many as 18 runners are often entered for the event, and eventhough the race wasn't for four days, there was nothing ... it ... could ...do.
"Payne toldme, 'We are under no obligation to fix this,'" Donatelli says.
So the coach hadto call his runner and tell him that his right index finger had DQ'd Nick fromprobably the last important race of his life.
Nick was justleaving his commencement, on his way to a celebratory brunch. He was so upsetthat he couldn't eat.
"This isunconscionable," says Nick's mom, Gloria, a high school teacher inMilwaukee. "It was an honest mistake. You make mistakes. I make mistakes.The NCAA makes mistakes. You just revise the list! Simple!"
Apparently not sosimple for the cold, gray, immovable elephant the NCAA has become. It can'tseem to keep track of nationally celebrated players such as USC's Reggie Bush,whose parents allegedly got a sweetheart deal on their rent, or Chris Webber,who got thousands of dollars illegally at Michigan. Kelvin Sampson cheats atOklahoma, and the NCAA lets him skate happily to Indiana with a slap on thewrist. But a nonscholarship engineering student in a nonrevenue sport gets morescrewed than plywood.
Nick and hisparents and his coach and his AD tried to contact everybody up to and includingNCAA president Myles Brand and got bupkes. The only person who would return mycalls was Payne, who kept repeating, "I can only refer you to our pressstatement on the matter."
It reads,"The NCAA is much too big and important to care about one tiny, snivelingathlete. Hell, this schmo isn't even on TV!"
Actually, I madethat up. The real statement reads, "The committee must follow theprocedures and protocol and remain consistent in how it handles thesesituations so NCAA championships can remain as fair and equitable aspossible."
There was roomfor Nick to run (especially after one runner scratched). But a dumb click(Donatello's) and a dumb cluck (Payne) kept him home. How fair is that?
Nick, to hiscredit, forgave his coach. "It's an easy mistake to make," he says.
And even easierto fix.
Arrrrgggh. TheNCAA makes Nurse Ratched look open-minded. Nothing ever changes about thesesmall-hearted, rule-worshipping pencil pushers. They can't control the JohnDillingers of the world so they take it out on the jaywalkers.
"I just wishI could buy the NCAA and fire all these bastards," Nick says.
Well, he startsas a mechanical engineer at Johnson & Johnson this summer. Maybe if hestarts saving now.
• If you have acomment for Rick Reilly, send it to email@example.com.
RIFFS of REILLY
Exclusively on Verizon Wireless V CAST and SI.com.
Kelvin Sampson cheats at Oklahoma and the NCAA letshim happily skip to Indiana with a slap on the wrist, but this nonscholarshipstudent gets screwed.
PETER READ MILLER