Kinder: Romero’s case makes K-State look like a bully

By Joshua Kinder

Athletic directors don’t want to believe it and the NCAA tries to pretend it doesn’t happen.

The Leti Romero case at Kansas State should serve as a reminder for everyone that not all student-athletes commit and sign with universities, but rather with coaches who spend endless hours building relationships.

I know the Letters of Intent say otherwise, but its nonsense. These are people and those recruits form bonds with head coaches and assistant coaches during long periods of time, sometimes years before they receive a commitment. It’s a process few understand unless they’ve actually lived it.

Never have I heard a recruit say they chose a school because that professor they met for five minutes on a tour touched their life in some special and unforgettable way.

I assure you, Romero, who could have gone virtually anywhere to play basketball — with visits also to Florida State and Virginia Tech — didn’t pick K-State because of its big stone buildings, beautiful Anderson Hall or even the West Stadium Center, which was designed to be the front door of the university.

Are you kidding me? She’s from Spain. And she could have gone anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, Manhattan is a great place and so is K-State. I’ve called it home off and on for almost 16 years now.

But anyone and anything other than the coaching staff, immediate support staff and team, is just noise for a recruit who hears pitch after pitch and has to decide what is just crap and what is real and honest.

When a recruit feels they’ve done that and can trust a coach or staff, it can become a special connection, especially for someone like Romero who was leaving her family for an entirely new country.

There is no doubt that Romero found that in Deb Patterson and her staff. I don’t know that her desire to transfer is so much about her lack of interest in playing for new coach Jeff Mittie, as much as it is about feeling forced into a situation she didn’t choose, and one that doesn’t include Patterson or assistant coach Shalee Lehning, who played big part in getting her to Manhattan in the first place.

Can you really blame her? For someone like Romero, those coaches can easily be more to them than just basketball. They’re also surrogates for the family that’s so far away, the ones they believe will always have their back.

It took a leap for Romero to leave Spain and move here. She, perhaps more than anyone in this kind of situation, relied on that support system that is now gone. It’s completely natural for Romero to feel how she does.

There’s something to K-State’s side in this mess, too. Romero is good — really good — and it doesn’t want to lose her, clearly. But universities, like K-State, also don’t want to perpetuate this idea of free agency among college athletes. I understand that. That’s why athletes must sit out a year if they transfer.

No matter what you may think is right — Romero’s fight for a release or K-State’s firm stance to make a transfer as difficult as possible — perception is everything. And right now, K-State looks a lot like a bully.

Some have suggested to me that many athletes often request transfers at K-State and go through this process — that Romero’s case is being handled just like all the others. OK. Assuming that’s true, the difference in this case, however, is that we actually know about it because Romero didn’t think she was being treated fairly and chose to take her fight into the public forum. Now, that’s the kind of transparency we want.

When is the last time you heard a student-athlete actually say what they’re really thinking? They rarely do. Schools don’t like that very much, especially in cases like this when the university isn’t allowed to comment due to student privacy laws.

That’s why Romero might be the smartest person in the room. She gets it and understands how this makes K-State look in the court of public opinion. She knows how important perception is in a case like this — a big, bad, money-grabbing university holding a young student-athlete hostage over a release. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening exactly, but to some, it sure could look like it.

Romero said she felt like K-State was “blackmailing” her to stay. That’s an awfully strong way to describe what she’s gone through in the past month and I have no doubt that’s truly how she feels. Romero speaks with conviction.

Even so, I chose not to use that comment in my initial story on Tuesday that first reported Romero is seeking a transfer because I felt it was too loaded and wasn’t needed to accurately tell her story. Another outlet did and this entire thing went national by Wednesday, which put even more pressure on K-State.

Like I said, no matter what side you choose to stand on in this debate, perception will always win out — and the perception is that what K-State is doing to Romero just looks wrong, smells wrong and sounds wrong. That’s the one thing school officials can’t afford going into Mittie’s first year leading the women’s program, especially on the recruiting trail.

I said from almost Day 1 that firing Patterson and her staff was risky because K-State could lose a valuable asset like Lehning and possibly even the team’s best player in Romero.

I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.

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