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Tara Sullivan

In punishing UMass for a $252 violation, the NCAA’s hypocrisy is on full display

Brittany Collens, now a tennis pro, saw a fairy-tale ending in college turn into a nightmare.
Brittany Collens, now a tennis pro, saw a fairy-tale ending in college turn into a nightmare.UMass athletics

As sports moments go, it was perfect. The UMass women’s tennis team was playing for a legendary coach heading for retirement, had a roster that featured a top senior transfer who’d found her perfect home, and was built from a group of diverse, driven, and determined women. Together, they would deliver UMass its first Atlantic 10 title in 15 years, when another senior, Anna Woosley, clinched the 2017 championship on the final point of the final match, a memory that would live on inside all of them, like a dream.

“That moment was an absolute fairy-tale ending,” recalls Brittany Collens, the senior who had initially followed her standout career at Manchester Essex High School by heading to New Mexico, but opted after a year to move home and transfer to UMass.

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“We had our coach, Judy Dixon, retiring after 25 years. It was perfect — the reaction and support we got on campus was amazing. We all went to Disney together to celebrate. It really was a fairy tale.”

Until the NCAA got its hands on things.

And with a dose of overreach so absurd it only makes sense to have come from this sham of an organization that purports to protect college athletes but consistently proves it’s more interested in asserting power over them, the dream has been rendered a nightmare. For the sake of $252, three years of UMass women’s tennis victories were vacated. For the decision to self-report a one-time, minor clerical error, the program has been forced to vacate that title. Poof — gone.

For reimbursing two players, one of them Collens, for an off-campus phone jack neither Collens nor her roommate even knew they had, the team was unfairly tainted as cheaters by the NCAA, painted with the same broad brush as recruiters who hand out bags of cash or athletes who pump themselves with performance enhancers.

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If only the NCAA would actually punish those types of egregious activities the way it is punishing UMass, the broken model of college athletics might actually take a step toward significant reform. Instead, we have a young woman, now a working tennis professional, driving home from a recent workout and pulling over to read texts alerting her to what was happening.

“It was a news headline that the NCAA was coming down on UMass, and I thought it was a general thing, but then the coach who sent it to me wrote underneath it, ‘Didn’t you transfer to UMass and play on the team during these years?’ ” Collens said.

"I started to read about two students who moved off campus on the 2015-17 team who had been deemed ineligible and I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re talking about me. I’m one of the two students.’

"It was me and my best friend. We thought it had to be a joke, that it would blow over. But I kept reading and realized, ‘This isn’t funny anymore. Are they taking our A-10 title?’

"I started getting emotional. I knew what we did that day, and I knew in my heart it was never going to be taken away, but to see what they wanted to do, I was so upset.

“Then I started getting angry.”

Welcome to the club.

Such has been a regular refrain for UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford. It is the answer he has for so many from within his university community, and from those on the outside, too. The outrage, the disbelief, the shock, all of it is palpable. But so, too, is the disgust.

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And for Bamford, it’s not easy to take those sentiments public, not as he continues to answer to the NCAA. But there is a lesson even bigger here, and he is standing up for it. He will support his players as much off the court as he did on it, encouraging them to use their voices, believing in their right to defend themselves and bursting with pride as they do it.

Collens started an online petition that as of Friday evening had surpassed 1,800 signatures, including tennis colleagues of Dixon’s from across the country, so many of whom joined her on a Zoom call Wednesday and were stunned into silence by the details of this case. The calls to reverse the decision are loud and clear. The NCAA should listen.

“For me, no matter what, I know we won it, and I hold on to that,” Dixon, 71, said. “But it’s the players, the ones who were out there day in and day out, working so hard. For them, their dream has been taken away.”

Seriously, how did we even get here?

Let’s go back to 2017, when Bamford hired Matt McCall to take over the men’s basketball program and the new coach came to his AD with some compliance questions over tickets to an on-campus multicultural concert. In the course of researching the issue — which turned out to be nothing because free tickets were available to many students — the department conducted an internal audit, which unearthed other NCAA compliance questions.

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The department engaged outside counsel, and after some time, it brought in the NCAA for guidance. Yes, it invited the NCAA to help. The NCAA ultimately asked for a financial aid review, and among the 600 records analyzed, UMass discovered 13 improper incidents involving 12 athletes, 10 of them basketball players.

The issues, all to do with overpaying for off-campus housing, totaled, according to the NCAA, “a little over $9,100 in impermissible aid.” Of that $9,100, $252 went to the tennis team.

It was wrong. It was a mistake. UMass admitted it, and entered the phase known as Negotiated Resolution, which is something akin to a plea agreement in court. UMass and the NCAA enforcement staff agreed that a fine and probation satisfied both sides. All that was needed was for the Committee on Infractions to sign off. The COI refused, citing the fact that no wins were vacated.

So it took them anyway.

An NCAA spokesperson told the Globe, “We can’t comment beyond what was in the committee’s decision.”

Just what is the lesson the NCAA is trying to teach? It has made it clear that it’s wiser to obfuscate, delay, and deny infractions than it is to self-report. One look at all the big-time basketball schools that have been defending themselves in a New York courtroom against recruiting violations but playing on as if nothing happened shows that as the best way to avoid sanction.

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But UMass followed the rules, and a state school habitually looking to save money ended up spending more than $100,000 on the investigation and then the defense. What’s the incentive for doing the right thing? If UMass said nothing, nothing would have happened.

“As a member of the NCAA, you have to trust the process, have to believe things are going to be adjudicated fairly,” Bamford said. “As disappointed as I am in the outcome, I would do things the same again, because our program is built on this integrity.”

If only the NCAA were, too.

“They turned us upside-down,” he said. “To have it become very adversarial, to have this outcome, and then be lectured on where we made mistakes, ones we fully acknowledged, it’s disappointing.”

It’s disgusting.

UMass will continue to fight, basing an appeal on what it calls an “abuse of discretion.” Collens will fight, too. Even if her petition can’t play any official role in influencing that appeal, it can deliver a verdict in the court of public opinion, making sure the world knows just how petty and vindictive the NCAA can be.

The NCAA’s official webpage describes itself as having 500 employees who “interpret and support member legislation, run all championships and manage programs that benefit student-athletes.”

Who exactly is getting the benefit here? It sure isn’t the UMass tennis team, and it’s not the A-10 teams they beat either, as there was zero on-court advantage gained from that minor $252 mistake.

“Don’t hurt the kids, that’s all I ask,” Dixon said. “If you’re going to do something, do it to the department, and the department can tolerate it. Now you’re hurting the kids you’re supposed to be protecting.”

“The NCAA is supposed to protect us, that’s their whole thing,” Collens echoed. “For them to blame us, they sent a message that we did something wrong, they’re not protecting us.

"At first I wanted them to overturn it, but now I feel even if they don’t, it’s OK because the amount of support we’ve received means so much more to us and to our integrity. The bigger thing now is that this is not just for us — it’s for future student-athletes, so this doesn’t happen to them.”

It should never have happened at all.

There was such pure, unadulterated joy when UMass won that A-10 title. Who can’t imagine being inside that bubble of euphoria, even for a moment, feeling what they felt, knowing that what they’d just accomplished would stay with them forever, shape them, mold them, become a chapter in their larger story?

Maybe it’s easy to say this shouldn’t matter, that the wins still happened, that nothing the NCAA can do will change that. And to the credit of Dixon, Collens, and Bamford, they all insist that’s true.

Except it’s not. The NCAA, with its grubby, punitive hands, made sure of it.

Shame on them.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.