For the meager sum of $252, the University of Massachusetts Amherst purchased a competitive advantage for one of its athletic teams. That’s some slick financial sleight-of-hand, wouldn’t you say? The person responsible for this sorcery ought to be calculating salary cap numbers for the Pittsburgh Steelers, or perhaps running a presidential campaign.
How did so little money elevate UMass women’s tennis to the 2017 Atlantic 10 Conference championship?
How did the $126 that was Brittany Collens’ share of this windfall invigorate her comeback from a first-set defeat against VCU’s Isabella Camargo to victory in 12 of the match’s final 14 games?
“I can’t even buy a tennis racket with that,” Collens told Sporting News.
And yet that $252, split evenly between Collens and her roommate at the time, is the reason the NCAA committee on infractions chose to vacate the championship UMass achieved with a furious comeback against the favored Rams and celebrated with a trip to — no kidding — Disney World.
This may be the single worst miscarriage of justice in the uneven history of NCAA jurisprudence.
How does one explain what occurred? Well, this is how Dave Roberts, vice-chair of the NCAA infractions committee, which was responsible for this putrid decision, attempted to justify it during an Oct. 16 conference call to announce the various penalties against UMass athletics.
“What we’re obligated to do is enforce the by-laws and the rules of the association,” Roberts said. “Those rules are put in place by the association members. In this particular case … the statute and the case law is intended to focus upon a fair playing field.” He said the rules indicate that vacating records is the appropriate remedy when ineligible athletes compete.
That Roberts was called on to speak publicly on this matter is the most obvious indicator something went horribly wrong with the UMass case. This was a minor incident, a fender-bender upon which the infractions committee chose to dump a can of gasoline and then light a match.
It began with the discovery in 2017 of some possible irregularities in UMass athletics. After an internal audit, work with outside counsel and then a cooperative investigation with the NCAA’s enforcement division — the people the NCAA pays to examine potential violations of the organization’s by-laws — it was determined a total of $9,100 of financial aid had been incorrectly dispensed to 10 members of the men’s basketball team and two women’s tennis players. It was basically an accounting error.
Collens’ scholarship checks from UMass were direct-deposited into her bank account. The payments weren’t always identical because they covered different expenses: room, board, books or, in the circumstance that went outside NCAA regulations, $126 in telecommunications fees to which on-campus residents were entitled but those living off-campus, such as Collens and her roommate, were not.
“It wouldn’t have even been possible for my best friend and I to find it,” Collens said.
The university acknowledged the error. The enforcement division, understanding this was a small amount of money dispensed inadvertently and offering no competitive advantage for either sport, worked with UMass on a “negotiated resolution.” It’s like a plea bargain for someone involved in the justice system. They agreed to a two-year probation and $5,000 fine for the school. This is how the process is supposed to work.
As with a plea bargain, which requires a judge to sign off on a deal, the negotiated resolution had to be approved by the infractions committee. And they said no, that because UMass had — inadvertently or not — fielded “ineligible” basketball and tennis players, their achievements must be vacated.
Had the error been discovered during UMass’ tennis season, Collens and her roommate would have been ineligible for about 15 minutes. Scores of alleged violations of NCAA by-laws are disposed of each year through a simple process: declare the athlete ineligible, arrange to make “reinstatement” payments, serve whatever competitive suspension the amount of money mandates, return to competition.
Last year, freshman center James Wiseman had the opportunity to rejoin University of Memphis’ basketball though his mother had gotten $11,000 to cover moving expenses during James’ high school career from former Tigers All-American Penny Hardaway, who subsequently became the U of M head coach. Wiseman was asked to serve only a 12-game suspension.
Collens is having her college achievements erased over 1/87th as much.
The infractions committee decision also stripped the tennis team of its victories in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, even though the violation occurred in 2016-17. Why? Collens said she was told it was because the tennis case got lumped in with basketball, which had errors dating back that far.
I can’t believe I just typed that paragraph.
“I’m obviously not laughing about it, but I’m laughing in the sense of disbelief. This is crazy,” Collens told SN. “Real emotions: I’m angry. And I’m upset. For so many reasons, and not even just concerning myself. I know we won. We have the memories. That is the most important thing. The thing that makes me angry is two things.
“One, the committee on infractions, by punishing the student-athletes, is sending the message out … that we had cheated. And, obviously, we didn’t. And that makes me very upset because the NCAA’s job is to protect student-athletes. It’s what it says on their website … I think they’ve painted a picture that really damages our character.
“The second thing that really makes me upset is that our team goes beyond the players. It’s the families. It’s our group called Friends of UMass Tennis. When we won that championship, a few of the FUMT members drove like an hour-and-a-half to the airport to greet us with a sign. There are so many people that are invested in this small sport that you wouldn’t know about it because it doesn’t get a lot of attention. This really affects them.
“It just seems like the cruelest thing to do.”
UMass argued that vacating the records was an “inappropriate” punishment in this case. The COI’s public report even acknowledges not every case in which athletes had competed while ineligible led to automatic vacating of records “for unique and fact-specific reasons.” It’s hard to imagine facts that would support an abdication of that penalty more than those involving UMass women’s tennis.
Athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement that the university believes the penalties are neither “appropriate nor proportional to the violations that occurred” and the errors in question “occurred with no intent to gain a competitive or recruiting advantage.”
UMass plans to appeal. Collens, in between practices for her next tournament on the ITF tour, started an online petition in support of that appeal that recently had attracted more than 4,400 signatures. She has conducted interviews with several journalists and spoke Thursday with a top aide to Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, frequently a critic of NCAA operations.
“It could have literally been anybody, and I think that’s why student-athletes and coaches are standing so strongly with us,” Collens said. “This system is going to fail now because who in their right mind is ever going to self-report again?”