NCAA denies UMass infractions appeal, affirms stripping of 2017 A-10 women’s tennis championship

  • The NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis is shown in this photo, Thursday, March 12, 2020. AP FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL CONROY

Staff Writer
Published: 11/17/2021 2:39:08 PM

AMHERST — The NCAA Committee on Infractions has upheld its decision to strip UMass of the 2017 Atlantic 10 women’s tennis championship, women’s tennis victories and men’s basketball victories between 2014 and 2017. It initially announced the violations last October but UMass appealed.

According to the decision, UMass provided financial aid packages that aligned with higher on-campus living expenses even though the student-athletes moved off campus. It was determined that the violations occurred because a former associate athletic director misunderstood financial aid rules and administrative errors were made.

UMass argued that the infractions panel came to an inaccurate conclusion based on the statement of a compliance coordinator that was not supported by the record or analysis of the school’s financial aid process.

The university submitted a written appeal in January, and the case was heard on June 30.

The Infractions Appeals Committee denied that appeal Wednesday, meaning UMass will vacate the conference championship — the last of legendary coach Judy Dixon’s career — along with 43 women’s tennis victories and 46 men’s basketball victories. The violations, which totaled $9,100 in impermissible financial aid benefits that exceeded the full cost of attendance to 12 athletes, reached Level II of the NCAA’s enforcement guidelines. In addition to the forfeiting of wins in which ineligible athletes participated, UMass must pay a $5,000 fine and go on probation for two years.

“I am profoundly disappointed with the outcome of our case and the manner in which we arrived at the final decision handed down by the IAC today,” UMass Athletic Director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “As a practitioner who believes deeply in our collegiate model and the ideals of fair play, it is unfathomable to me that these committees vacated a tennis championship because two student-athletes unknowingly received $252 beyond the cost of attendance allowable amount, for instance. What message does it send that a member institution in good standing can self-report inadvertent administrative violations — that provided no recruiting or competitive advantage — and work closely in partnership with the NCAA enforcement staff only to arrive at an outcome that hurts our student-athletes and staff who did nothing wrong? It’s an overreach of epic proportion.”

UMass self-reported the violations when it learned about them in 2017 and worked with both the NCAA and outside counsel throughout the process, according to the university. The NCAA acknowledged there were 13 “unintentional and inadvertent” violations in the issuance of financial aid above the cost of attendance. It affected 12 athletes, 10 of whom were men’s basketball players. UMass’ administration, coaching staff and student-athletes were unaware of the violations when they occurred.

The violations occurred under previous UMass athletic administrations, men’s basketball and women’s tennis coaching staffs. No players from the 2017 teams remain at the university.

Probationary period

“The (Committee on Infractions) abused its discretion by not removing the vacation of records as a form of penalty and the (Infractions Appeals Committee) was complicit in its follow-up decision,” Bamford said. “We are in the golden age of student-athlete rights but throughout this process the mechanics of NCAA enforcement has revealed that this important movement is not fully supported by NCAA staff or members of its own association. We say we are here for our students but time and again do things that are incongruent. It’s shameful.”

UMass’ probation began Oct. 16, 2020, and will expire on Oct. 15, 2022. During the probation, the university will be monitored extensively by the Committee on Infractions to ensure it is following the terms of the probation and doesn’t commit any other infractions. The NCAA can extend the probationary period if UMass doesn’t comply or commits further infractions. Any actions contrary to the probation or additional violations “shall be considered grounds for prescribing more severe penalties” according to the decision and could result in more allegations and violations. University compliance officers and a representative from the financial aid office must attend an NCAA Regional Rules seminar.

The Minutemen and Minutewomen still competing in Amherst are eligible to participate in postseason competition if they qualify.

“We take pride in conducting our athletics program with honesty and integrity. Accordingly, I am grateful for our athletic department’s commitment to NCAA compliance which resulted in our identifying and reporting violations to the NCAA enforcement staff,” UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said in a statement. “As we conclude this unfortunate matter, I remain dissatisfied by the IAC’s decision to uphold the harsh penalties provided by the COI. I always believed we would receive fair consideration given the facts of the case, our self-reporting and willingness to cooperate throughout the process. The NCAA’s inconsistent approach to the application of penalties is clearly a reflection of a broken infractions model which has now negatively impacted innocent student-athlete alumni/ae who otherwise had a remarkable experience at our university.”

The $252 for the two women’s tennis players was related to a clerical error over reimbursement for a landline phone jack installed in an off-campus apartment that the players didn’t use because they had cell phones. Brittany Collens, a senior on the tennis team who was one of the players in the apartment, has been vocal in her support of the appeal over the past year, starting a petition and penning a Players Tribute article.

“Today is a pretty sad day. @NCAA never acknowledged us, our petition, or asked us to participate. I truly can’t believe they denied the appeal standing with the decision to erase our careers,” Collens tweeted. “This is who the @NCAA is. They do not care about athletes in the slightest.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.

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