The NCAA Committee on Infractions (“Committee” or “Panel” or “COI”) recently issued its findings and found that the Stephen F. Austin State University (“Institution” or “SFA”) committed violations of NCAA legislation.
This case concerns the erroneous certification of academic eligibility for 82 student-athletes in nine sports over a six-year period and an agreed upon lack of institutional control. The initial violations were self-detected and reported by the institution, and the parties engaged in a collaborative investigation to determine the scope of the violations.
In June 2018, the institution hired a new athletics director. Shortly after he accepted the position, several individuals announced their planned departure from the athletics department, most notably the then director of compliance (“former compliance director”), and the then director of academics for athletics (“former academics director”). Prior to their departure, the new athletics director hired a staff member to serve as assistant athletics director, and to initially work as an athletics academic advisor while preparing to assume the position of director of compliance (“compliance director”), after the departure of the former compliance director. The compliance director, who had a long tenure in athletics academic advising prior to her arrival at SFA, initially questioned how the institution performed academic certification of eligibility for its student-athletes and learned that all responsibility for academic certification resided with the former academics director. Neither campus academic advising staff nor athletics compliance had any involvement. Although the institution utilized the admissions department in academic certification, that department only double checked the numbers already calculated by the former academics director, and it had no role in determining degree applicability or progress-toward-degree evaluations. At that time, the compliance director was not assigned a role in academic certification, and she did not learn until later that the institution erroneously certified student-athletes.
The former academics director had a strong reputation in the athletics academic advising community. He held a board position on a national membership organization and instructed his staff about the importance of following NCAA rules. Unfortunately, the former academics director’s reputation and stature provided individuals within athletics a false sense of security that he applied all academic certification rules correctly. Further complicating the issue, the former compliance director made known his intent to retire after a near 30-year career at the institution, and as part of his transition to retirement, the former compliance director delegated additional compliance responsibilities to the former academics director. In addition to those compliance responsibilities and leading academic services, the former academics director oversaw a moderately sized staff, performed academic certification for all current and prospective student-athletes, awarded and tracked financial aid for all student-athletes, and taught several classes on campus. Despite this heavy workload, the former academics director did not express any concerns and displayed confidence in his responsibilities. Those involved in compliance and athletics academic services at SFA believed the former academics director capably fulfilled the duties he was assigned.
After the transition of the former academics director to a faculty position and the former compliance director to retirement, the compliance director assumed the position of assistant athletics director for compliance. While in this role, a member of the football staff asked her if a current student-athlete who entered SFA as a nonqualifier could gain an additional year of eligibility by virtue of graduating in four years. The compliance director reviewed the student-athlete’s academic file to determine if the NCAA bylaw applied. Through that review, the compliance director learned that not only was the student-athlete not on track to graduate in four years, he also did not meet progress- toward-degree legislation during his tenure at the institution. At or around the same time, the compliance director gave a transcript of a football student-athlete to an intern in her office to use as “practice” for learning academic certification rules. The intern returned to the compliance director and expressed concern that she must not understand NCAA academic eligibility rules because her review showed the student-athlete not meeting NCAA progress-toward-degree legislation. When the compliance director reviewed the intern’s work, she found that the intern did the work correctly and the student-athlete did not meet progress-toward-degree rules.
Concerned that the institution had a potential systemic issue concerning academic certification, the compliance director contacted the NCAA enforcement staff in July 2019. The NCAA enforcement staff advised her to recertify all current student-athletes to ensure their eligibility to compete in the upcoming 2019-20 academic year. Following the recertification, the institution advised multiple student-athletes to enroll in additional academic credit during the summer to make up for progress- toward-degree deficiencies and sought progress-toward-degree waivers for other student-athletes.
On September 16, 2019, a new president began at the institution and he was briefed on the status of the institution’s academic certification matter. Recognizing the seriousness of the matter and based on his background in athletics, compliance and NCAA eligibility rules, the president agreed with the recommendation from athletics to hire and engage outside counsel. In October 2019, outside counsel and the NCAA enforcement staff visited campus to conduct interviews and meet with the president and athletics administrators. The NCAA enforcement staff visited campus in November and December 2019 to assist with the recertification of a group of student-athletes dating back four years, consistent with the NCAA statute of limitations. As a part of this effort, the institution recertified all football, men’s basketball and baseball student-athletes. Further, it recertified select individuals in other sports as a “spot-check.” Through that review, it was determined that the primary problem in the former academic certification process was the institution’s failure to consider the degree applicability of transfer credits when certifying transfer student-athletes’ academic eligibility. Although these transfer student-athletes largely met NCAA transfer legislation, they failed to meet progress-toward-degree legislation at the institution.
The recertification efforts also discovered two football student-athletes who competed while ineligible in the 2019 fall season. The student-athletes had cured their progress-toward-degree deficiencies prior to the 2018-19 academic year, and thus were not identified in the institution’s initial recertification, but had not been reinstated after participating while ineligible during a prior season. The compliance director immediately sought and obtained reinstatement for the two student-athletes.
In their interviews, both the former compliance director and the former academics director reported that they understood progress-toward-degree legislation and that the institution had an effective academic certification system. Neither indicated any concern for the certification system during their tenure and expressed surprise that so many student-athletes competed while academically ineligible. Although the former academics director acknowledged he had a significant workload while in his former position, he did not express to the institution or the NCAA enforcement staff any concerns with his ability to perform his duties effectively.
During the investigation, the institution discovered and disclosed to the NCAA enforcement staff the results of a 2014 NCAA Academic Performance Plan (APP) data review. That review by the NCAA academic and membership affairs staff did not indicate any specific, systemic problems with the then academic certification process, but the academic and membership affairs staff’s final report provided to the institution did note that the institution did not adequately consider degree applicability in its academic certification process in previous years. Academic and membership affairs staff directed the institution to update its policies and procedures to “more clearly define the progress-toward-degree requirements that need to be met and specify the need to use degree applicable versus total hours going into the fifth full time term” and “more clearly identify the individuals involved in the certification process, their roles in the process…” Because any changes made at that time failed to detect or prevent the violations at issue in this case, the institution agreed it did not adequately control this element of its athletics program.
The institution and NCAAA enforcement staff agreed that this case could be processed through negotiation resolution and agreed that this case should be properly resolved as Level I – Mitigated for the institution. In reaching a “mitigated” classification, the institution and enforcement staff assessed the aggravating and mitigating factors by weight and number. Typically, enforcement cases involving eligibility certification and progress-toward-degree violations are difficult to investigate and process largely because of an institution’s inability to provide the enforcement staff with the needed information to determine the scope and origins of the violations. In this case, the initial violations were detected and reported by the institution, and throughout the case the athletics director, the compliance director and others at the institution devoted substantial time and resources to assist the enforcement staff, discover critical information and recertify student-athletes in a timely manner. This case serves as a model for other institutions when faced with multiple progress-toward-degree violations. Additionally, the institution’s last major NCAA infractions case occurred over 18 years ago, and because of the significant lapse of time between cases, the institution and NCAA enforcement staff agreed that this aggravating factor carries little weight.
This case was resolved through a negotiated resolution.
The Committee concluded that SFA committed the following violations:
Violations of NCAA Division I Manual Bylaws 184.108.40.206-(b), 220.127.116.11-(c) and 18.104.22.168 (2013-14 through 2018-19); 14.10.1 (2013-14); 16.8.1 (2013-14 through 2019-20); 12.11.1 (2014-15 through 2019-20); 22.214.171.124.6 (2014-15 and 2015-16); 126.96.36.199.3.1 (2014-15 through 2018-19); 188.8.131.52.3 (2015-16 through 2018-19); 184.108.40.206.1-(b) and 15.01.5 (2016-17 and 2018-19); 14.2.1 and 14.2.2 (2017-18); 220.127.116.11-(a) (2017-18 and 2018- 19); 18.104.22.168.1-(d) (2018-19) (Level I)
The institution and NCAA enforcement staff agreed that beginning in the 2013-14 academic year and continuing through the fall of 2019, the institution improperly certified as eligible for practice and/or competition 82 student-athletes on 172 occurrences in nine sports including football, men’s basketball, baseball, men’s track and field, women’s track and field, softball, women’s volleyball, women’s golf and men’s cross country. As a result, 82 student-athletes competed and received actual and necessary expenses while ineligible. Additionally, the institution failed to withhold 36 student-athletes from competition during subsequent academic years before their eligibility was reinstated. Specifically:
a. Beginning in the 2015-16 academic year and continuing through the 2018-19 academic year, two football student-athletes, four baseball student-athletes and one women’s volleyball student-athlete practiced and competed outside of the temporary certification period and prior to having their amateurism certified. NCAA Bylaw22.214.171.124.3 (2015-16 through 2018-19).
b. In the spring of 2018, one men’s track and field student-athlete and one women’s track and field student-athlete practiced and competed without enrolling in a full-time program of studies. NCAA Bylaws 14.2.1 and 14.2.2 (2017-18).
c. In the 2017-18 academic year, one men’s cross country and track and field student-athlete, and in the fall of 2018, one women’s golf student-athlete, competed without satisfactory completion of at least 24 semester hours of academic credit prior to the start of the student- athletes’ second year of collegiate enrollment. NCAA Bylaw 126.96.36.199-(a) (2017-18 and 2018- 19).
d. Beginning in the 2013-14 academic year and continuing through the 2018-19 academic year, seven football student-athletes, one women’s track and field student-athlete, four men’s basketball student-athletes and two baseball student-athletes, on a total of 15 different occurrences, competed without satisfactory completion of at least 18 semester hours of academic credit during the certifying institution’s preceding regular two semesters. [NCAA Bylaw 188.8.131.52-(b) (2013-14 through 2018-19)]
e. Beginning in the 2013-14 academic year and continuing through the 2018-19 academic year, five football student-athletes, one baseball student-athlete and one men’s basketball student- athlete, on eight total occurrences, competed without satisfactory completion of at least six semester hours of academic credit during the certifying institution’s preceding regular semester. NCAA Bylaw 184.108.40.206-(c) (2013-14 through 2018-19).
f. In the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years, two football student-athletes competed in the first four contests of the season without satisfactory completion of at least nine semester hours during the previous fall term. NCAA Bylaw 220.127.116.11.6 (2014-15 and 2015-16).
g. Beginning in the 2013-14 academic year and continuing through the 2018-19 academic year, 12 men’s basketball student-athletes, 16 baseball student-athletes, 39 football student-athletes, one men’s cross country student-athlete, one softball student-athlete, and two women’s track and field student-athletes, on 105 different total occurrences, competed without successfully completing their required percentage-of-degree requirements. NCAA Bylaw 18.104.22.168 (2013- 14 through 2018-19).
h. Beginning in the 2014-15 academic year and continuing through the 2018-19 academic year, 13 baseball student-athletes, on 20 different occasions, competed in the spring semester even though those student-athletes had failed to meet the percentage-of-degree requirements at the outset of the previous fall semester. NCAA Bylaw 22.214.171.124.3.1 (2014-15 through 2018-19).
i. During the spring of 2017, the institution improperly certified as eligible a two-year nonqualifier transfer baseball student-athlete who did not have the required 48 transferable hours. The institution also impermissibly awarded the student-athlete athletics aid. NCAA Bylaws 126.96.36.199.1-(b) and 15.01.5 (2016-17).
j. During the fall of 2018, the institution improperly certified as eligible for athletics aid a two- year nonqualifier transfer football student-athlete who did not have the required cumulative grade-point average of 2.500. NCAA Bylaws 188.8.131.52.1-(d) and 15.01.5 (2018-19).
Violations of NCAA Division I Manual Bylaws 2.1.1, 2.8.1 and 6.01.1 (2013-14 through 2018-19) (Level I)
The institution and NCAA enforcement staff agreed that the scope and nature of the violations set forth above demonstrate that from the 2013-14 through 2018-19 academic years, the institution failed to exercise institutional control and to monitor the conduct and administration of the athletics program. Specifically, the institution failed to adequately monitor and control the athletics eligibility certification process, failed to properly apply academic certification legislation, failed to sufficiently involve institutional staff members from departments outside of athletics in the certification process, failed to withhold ineligible student-athletes from team travel and competition and failed to promptly or contemporaneously detect and report the certification violations to the NCAA.
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors in accordance with NCAA Bylaws 19.9.3 and 19.9.4
Aggravating Factors for the Institution
Multiple Level I violations by the institution. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.3-(a).
A history of Level I, Level II or major violations by the institution. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.3-(b).
Lack of institutional control. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.3-(c).
Mitigating Factors for the Institution
Prompt acknowledgement of the violation, acceptance of responsibility and imposition of meaningful corrective measures and/or penalties. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.4-(b).
Affirmative steps to expedite final resolution of the matter. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.4-(c).
Exemplary cooperation. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.4-(f).
As a result of the foregoing, the Committee penalized SFA as follows: