A LIFETIME AGO back in January, after LSU defeated Clemson 42-25 in college football’s national title game, famous LSU alum and current Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. stuffed wads of cash into the hands of several LSU players during the on-field celebration, $2,000 in all. At the time, LSU was internally investigating various elements of its athletic programs for impropriety. By summer, the school had completed its two-year investigation and, on the football side, uncovered that a booster had paid the father of one of the players for a no-show job — an NCAA violation. LSU self-reported the incident, self-imposed a loss of four scholarships per year over the next two years from the 85 football scholarships the school is allowed each year. LSU also banned Beckham from the school’s athletic facilities for two years. The NCAA thus far has not handed down further sanctions. Football goes on.
In college basketball, Kansas and Arizona are embroiled in a recruiting-payment scheme (“pay for play,” as it is called) that has further exposed the corruption in the sport that’s been nothing short of an open secret.
The NCAA says the conduct at Kansas — where the NCAA charged head coach Bill Self and an assistant with knowledge and disregard of payments being made from representatives from Adidas to players as well as steering potential recruits to the school — has been “egregious,” its attitudes “indifferent” and its posture “defiant.” The guardian of Kansas player Silvio De Sousa received $2,500 and later agreed to receive an additional $20,000 from an Adidas rep to free De Sousa from a commitment to play at Maryland. Culminating a massive FBI sting operation, the case wound up in a federal trial, which the university used not to show contrition for its part in a massive corruption case but as a shield to protect Self and his staff.
“As the federal trial proved, Adidas employees intentionally concealed impermissible payments from the University and its coaching staff. The University has never denied these impermissible payments were made,” Kansas said in a May statement. “For the NCAA enforcement staff to allege that the University should be held responsible for these payments is a distortion of the facts and a gross misapplication of NCAA Bylaws and case precedent.”
Illegal payments were made to its players, but Kansas does not believe the university should be held responsible. Self is being defended by the university as an innocent victim. Arizona thus far is doing the same for its head coach, Sean Miller, even though Miller’s then-assistant, Emanuel “Book” Richardson, spent three months in prison for accepting $20,000 in bribes to steer Arizona players to sign with a particular agent upon turning professional.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York laid out cash payments changing hands from sneaker company representatives to agents to players, with agents and coaches using money not only to pay players and families but influence which schools players would attend, effectively altering the competition on the court nationwide.
Last month, the NCAA decided enough was enough, and it dropped the harshest and most unforgiving punishment on — wait for it — the University of Massachusetts women’s tennis team.
UMass received two years’ probation, self-imposed a $5,000 fine and had the records and matches from two seasons, 2015-16-and 2016-17, expunged because two players received “improper benefits” of $252.
The improper benefit, which UMass self-reported to the NCAA: reimbursement for a phone jack in the players’ off-campus apartment, a phone jack they didn’t even know they had and didn’t use because they have cellphones.
A telephone jack.
In the age of cellphones.
Brittany Collens transferred from New Mexico State in 2014, and the NCAA decision to vacate the wins erases two-thirds of her UMass career. “It’s like I never played there,” she says. College careers wiped out, accomplishments erased, including the Atlantic-10 championship UMass won in 2017 and the season records of the last two years of legendary UMass coach Judy Dixon’s 25-year, 316-win career.
Over a telephone jack.
The error was a clerical one. It was discovered during an internal investigation that found a total of $9,187 in overpayments between the women’s tennis and the men’s basketball team, whose overpayments included housing reimbursements in addition to the telecom fee. UMass admitted the mistake, using the NCAA’s system of self-reporting, and agreed to pay a fine of $5,000, only to have the NCAA’s committee on infractions reject the settlement because it did not include vacating wins from both sports.
“They gave us the largest penalty they could give us,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said. “Our argument was we gained no advantage. We did not discredit or disagree with any of the facts of the case. We admitted we made clerical errors, but we did not compromise the collegiate model. Our women’s tennis team essentially forfeited a conference championship because of a telecom fee, a fee which, by the way, doesn’t even exist anymore. It was eliminated because everyone uses cellphones. There’s no need to pay for a hardwired phone jack anymore.”
When the committee on infractions held a news conference last month to explain itself, there was no sympathy. Regardless of knowledge, fault or intent, the athletes were technically ineligible, which forces the games in which they appeared to become forfeits, committee member Dave Roberts said.
While Bill Self and Kansas do their best Al Capone tough-guy impersonation, UMass reportedly spent $100,000 to investigate itself and volunteer the minor infraction its investigation revealed. The NCAA agreed in its statement that the overpayment was an administrative mistake, writing, “The violations occurred as a result of a former associate athletics director’s misunderstanding of financial aid rules and administrative error.” Yet it still concluded, “The excessive financial aid rendered the student-athletes ineligible.”
Big-time college coaches go to jail. Adidas, Under Armour and Nike finance AAU leagues and are business partners with NCAA schools across the country. Even while the Kansas scandal played out in federal court, the university renewed its deal with Adidas for 14 years and $196 million. Kansas is facing NCAA sanctions in football as well. Yet, while the Kansas teams keep on playing, the NCAA turned its attention to UMass tennis and killed a fly of an issue with an atom bomb’s worth of punishment.
“I think there’s a misappropriation, and maybe we are at a point in time where the association [NCAA] needs to have a reset, quite frankly,” A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade told MassLive.com. “To have a set of student-athletes that had no involvement in a mistake/violation that has been acknowledged … and yet to penalize them by the vacation of contests seems inordinately punitive and not in the spirit of what we do as an association.”
The NCAA is investigating LSU, Arizona and Kansas, and should each school receive the harshest penalties, it nevertheless will not equate to justice. In the NCAA’s world, a UMass clerical error could very well result in the same sanctions as a massive deception engaged in by coaches, players and sponsors to influence which teams receive the best talent. Depending on those rulings, there is a chance the UMass penalties will be even more severe.
THROUGHOUT THE CULTURE, in ways basic and fundamental, minor and titanic, proportionality is at issue. The nationwide protests in the wake of police killing George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake are rooted not in condoning criminality but in whether police suffocating a man for eight minutes was an appropriate response for an alleged attempt to use a counterfeit $20 bill. Proportionality is another word for fairness. For justice. We don’t cut off someone’s hand for stealing a loaf of bread anymore — unless, metaphorically, we’re talking about the NCAA.
When powerful institutions ignore the idea of proportionality, they no longer seek integrity and have become corrupt. Corruption does not necessarily mean “illegal” nearly as much as it means engaging in behavior that undermines an institution’s stated mission of its values. By this definition, the NCAA is corrupted.
When governments do so, they are called autocratic. When law enforcement decides arbitrarily that any infraction could warrant a person’s last day on earth, the societies in which they operate are called police states. The NCAA system of self-reporting, followed by negotiated settlement, exists, at least in theory, to avoid the issues in, say, the criminal justice system — mandatory minimums, mandatory sentencing — with the intention of looking at the facts of an individual set of circumstances to inject common sense. It is incongruous that the NCAA could view the basketball and UMass tennis cases as one. It is unthinkable that it would determine that a bureaucratic error should fit into the same category as an athlete taking money from a third party.
The NCAA has overreached into corruption, and the collateral damage of that corruption and overreach is something as important to UMass, Judy Dixon, Ryan Bamford and especially Brittany Collens as anything in the world: their reputations. There will be no complete historical record of Collens’ career at UMass. At first glance (and most people do not take the time to give a second), Dixon’s former program and Bamford’s department are being treated like cheaters. There is nothing proportional about the NCAA decision.
“I underscored that we know what we accomplished during those three years culminating in the A-10 championship,” Dixon said she told her team. “No one can take that away. What’s on paper doesn’t matter. What matters is what you hold in your memory and in your heart.”
Unfairness, though, creates activists, even in athletes who are taught to be deferential as soon as they show promise. They are routinely the benevolent face of sports, visiting the ill not only because they are idolized but also as a reminder to be grateful for their good fortune to be physically able to play sports at a world-class level. They are taught they should be grateful because they are “given” housing and an education and food. They are told to be grateful that the public cares and that the generally meaningless skill of being able to hit a kick serve in this culture is actually a potentially lucrative one.
Within all of that deference is a foundational manipulation of the athletes to make them docile, create fear in them not to challenge, which simultaneously empowers the NCAA to be unaccountable.
This injustice has led Brittany Collens into action. She and her teammates started a Change.org petition against the NCAA and in support of UMass tennis that has hit more than 5,000 signatures. After the NCAA ruling, the office of U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, reached out to Collens to discuss future actions and potential legislation to curb the NCAA’s power. When people expect justice, unaccountability creates fighters.
“They’re going to battle because it’s their reputation,” Bamford said. “The infractions had no impact on the outcome of their success.”
For UMass, both Dixon and Bamford stressed the necessity of working within the NCAA system, of changing it from within. These are nice sentiments, often appropriate ones in order to maintain one’s sanity and the appearance that systems are working as intended, but the NCAA’s decision on UMass undermines the spirit of self-reporting procedures. And while Bamford said he is proud of his programs and would take the same steps should the need to self-investigate recur, the truth is that had he not been diligent, the NCAA would have never known about a $252 overpayment on a phone jack. By ignoring its own recommendations in favor of harsher penalties, the NCAA has yet again given every school pause about whether to self-report. For the players, who see that the self-reporting system can be interpreted as a method for the NCAA to punish them for telling on themselves, the relationship with the NCAA is adversarial.
Meanwhile, as UMass has begun the appeal process without a great deal of optimism, the small schools without gaudy contracts with Nike and Adidas await the NCAA decision on Kansas and LSU and Arizona basketball, with coaches whose voices are on tape connected with massive illegalities, whose text messages are in the FBI’s possession and whose games are allowed to continue.
“The NCAA is us. It’s me,” Bamford said. “We’re part of the body, so where I think there needs to be change is legislative, because I don’t want this to happen to anyone again. I’d do the same thing all over again, but you can disincentivize someone to report something. Our fans and alumni are proud with how we handle ourselves. They know we’ve handled things the right way, and we know they have handled things the right way. I told the tennis team, ‘Don’t listen to this. This is not fair. You will always be recognized and always be champions.’ Their title was a lasting legacy, and that moment should stay that way.”