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Brittany Collens found her voice.

Punished by one of the most egregious examples of NCAA overreach imaginable, the former UMass tennis player became a passionate advocate for reform, putting a human face on the fight against institutional bureaucracy. She spoke to politicians, she wrote petitions, she did countless interviews, all while pursuing a career as a professional player, pushing through the pandemic and returning to the grueling international travel road.

Over and over Collens told her story, the one that put herself and her former UMass teammates in the NCAA’s crosshairs over someone else’s $252 mistake, the one that stripped her 2017 team of its historic Atlantic 10 championship title along with three seasons’ worth of victories, the one that took a self-reported, admitted clerical error in paying for a landline telephone in an off-campus apartment and turned it into a violation on par with the highest levels of institutional cheating.

Collens found her voice, yet still, the NCAA refused to hear it. And with news Wednesday that the overlords in college athletics had denied UMass’s final appeal of its punishment, there is officially nowhere left to turn. The ink, like the tears that have been shed, has dried on this shameful decision.

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“Talking to my best friends and teammates, we just feel like it changed the picture of what we went through as college athletes. You go through so much and you hope at the end of it it’s worth it,” Collens said this past week, awaiting a flight home from Colombia to be with her family for Thanksgiving. “Winning the A-10 championship my senior year, going to the NCAAs, it felt like all the hard work paid off, we did it, we made it, this is our reward.

“For the NCAA to put us through hell, to essentially say, ‘Nope, we don’t care about you,’ the fact that they never acknowledged us, not once talked to us, says so much. I have not heard from one person inside the [Committee on Infractions] or someone inside the NCAA that had power on our case, says so much. They never reached out, and made it abundantly clear they didn’t want to hear our voice.”

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By way of recap, Wednesday’s metaphorical gavel ended a tale that resonated so loudly in March 2020, a story filled with enough details to remind us of just how Byzantine, convoluted, and complicated NCAA rules remain. But if those reminders are intermittent for most of us, imagine what it feels like to be on the inside of the madness.

“The only word for this is travesty,” said Judy Dixon, the record-setting UMass coach who rode that championship into retirement, only to have the glorious memory replaced by such pain. “The NCAA is a completely dysfunctional organization and does not have student welfare as a goal. There needs to be a complete overhaul of their system … it’s broken and small adjustments are not enough. Looking at this finding will make it difficult for other athletic departments to self-report. We are the victims of an unconscionable decision.

“With nothing left in our arsenal I simply will move on with a heavy heart, sadness, and anger. This is not justice.”

Ryan Bamford and UMass Athletics self-reported a minor infraction, and were punished severely anyway.
Ryan Bamford and UMass Athletics self-reported a minor infraction, and were punished severely anyway.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

The NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee (IAC) upheld the decision of the NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI), and a spokesperson for the NCAA said Thursday there would be no additional comment to the 13-page report. From its first official sentence — “The NCAA Division 1 Infractions Appeals Committee (IAC) has upheld the penalties prescribed by the NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI) on October 16, 2020” — throughout the wordy and convoluted logic that upholds the appeal by flatly denying any of UMass logical, defensible, and believable assertions, the report is painful.

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And good for UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford for being willing to say so. From the moment this all went down, Bamford has stood behind his athletes and coaches publicly (not easy when your job needs NCAA approval at every turn) and privately, even making sure to call them before news of the denied appeal went public. Unlike the initial punishment, when the NCAA announcement blindsided Collens so much she had to pull over while driving home from a match to discover what the constant stream of texts on her phone was about, there is less shock this time. But there is still anger, and deservedly so.

Describing himself as “profoundly disappointed,” Bamford took aim where it belonged. “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,” he wrote in the school’s news release. “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.”

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And then he said this: “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.”

This is an important point. The position of what the NCAA insists we call the student-athlete is changing, finally tilting the scales of power in their direction, seen most obviously in the recent legislation that allows them to profit from their name, image, and likeness. But it is changing more than that, with voices such as Collens’s, supported by people such as Bamford.

“I got the text from Ryan and he said, ‘I’m really sorry, thank you for everything you’ve done, keep fighting,’ ” Collens said. “That made me happy for so many reasons. The whole thing that really makes me upset about the NCAA is that there are not many people willing to speak up against them who are currently in the system. Understandably so. You can get fired. Ryan’s words, publicly talking about this in this era of college athletes finally benefiting from health and safety efforts and NIL rules, with him being so clear as to where he stands from the inside, it lets us know the reform is working.

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“Overall, it’s so disappointing. But this is going to make a difference in the future.”


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