The NCAA Committee on Infractions (“Committee” or “Panel” or “COI”) recently issued its findings and found that the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (“Institution” or “UM” or “UMass”) committed violations of NCAA legislation.
This case involved financial aid errors that resulted in student-athletes receiving payments in excess of their full cost of attendance. The violations primarily occurred in the men’s basketball program but also involved the women’s tennis program at UMass. These overages occurred as a result of the misunderstanding of financial aid rules and administrative error. The NCAA enforcement staff and UMass agreed to the facts but disagreed on the application of a bylaw, the level of the violations and whether a failure to monitor occurred. There were no involved individuals in the case.
Over three academic years, UMass provided impermissible financial aid on 13 instances to 12 student-athletes in two sport programs when it awarded them financial aid in excess of their full cost of attendance. The impermissible financial aid rendered the student-athletes ineligible. Thereafter, the student-athletes competed while ineligible in 186 contests and UMass provided them with impermissible actual and necessary expenses associated with those competitions. UMass failed to meet its obligation to withhold ineligible student-athletes from competition.
The circumstances surrounding the impermissible financial aid are unique in that they occurred when student-athletes moved off-campus after the start of the semester and UMass did not readjust their financial aid. The student-athletes fell into two categories: (1) student-athletes who continued to receive a telecom fee associated with dorm phones after they moved off-campus and (2) student-athletes whose on-campus housing was more expensive than their off-campus housing. Eight student-athletes received the impermissible telecom fee. Four student-athletes received the impermissible higher housing rate. One student-athlete received both. In total, UMass provided a little over $9,100.00 in impermissible aid to the 12 student-athletes. The Panel concluded that the violations are Level II.
The Committee concluded that UM committed the following violations:
Violations of NCAA Division I Manual Bylaws 12.11.1, 15.01.2, 15.1 and 16.8.1 (2014-15 through 2016-17)
Over three academic years, UMass provided financial aid packages that aligned with on-campus living expenses even though the student-athletes moved off-campus during the semester. The higher on-campus living expense payments caused the student-athletes to exceed their full cost of attendance and constituted impermissible financial aid. As a result, the student-athletes became ineligible and UMass did not withhold them from competition. UMass also provided them with actual and necessary expenses associated with those competitions. The violations are Level II.
Beginning with the 2014-15 academic year and continuing through the 2016-17 academic year, UMass provided financial aid in excess of full cost of attendance on 13 instances to 12 student-athletes. The excessive financial aid totaled over $9,100.00 and ranged from $135.00 to roughly $3,700.00 per student-athlete. The overages occurred because UMass staff members did not understand financial aid legislation and/or detect financial aid over-awards when the student-athletes moved off-campus after the start of the semester. As a result of the impermissible aid, student-athletes competed and received expenses while ineligible. The financial aid errors violated Bylaws 15, 16 and 12. The institution agreed with the Bylaw 15 and 16 citations but contested a violation of Bylaw 12.
Bylaw 15 governs financial aid. Bylaw 15.01.2 expressly declares that student-athletes who receive financial aid other than that permitted by the Association shall not be eligible for college athletics. Similarly, Bylaw 15.1 specifically states that student-athletes are ineligible from competition if they receive financial aid that exceeds the value of the cost of attendance. Bylaw 16.8.1 permits institutions to provide actual and necessary expenses to student-athletes representing the institution in practice or competition but reserves those expenses to eligible student-athletes only. Finally, institutions are obligated to withhold ineligible student-athletes from competition, regardless of the reason for, or knowledge of, their ineligibility, pursuant to Bylaw 12.11.1.
UMass agreed that on 13 occasions over three years it provided 10 men’s basketball student-athletes and two women’s tennis student-athletes with financial aid that exceeded their full cost of attendance. The overages occurred because the student-athletes moved from on-campus housing to off-campus housing after the semester had begun. At that time, UMass had already awarded the student-athletes their financial aid in accordance with their on-campus living situations and then did not adjust the financial aid to account for their new, less expensive off-campus living situations.
Generally, the overages resulted from one of two scenarios: (1) student-athletes who received the telecom fee associated with on-campus communication services or (2) student-athletes who moved from more expensive on-campus “singles” to less expensive off-campus housing arrangements. The majority of the student-athletes’ overages were limited to one category and one academic year. However, one men’s basketball student-athlete received both the telecom fee and more expensive housing rate during the 2015-16 academic year and continued to receive a more expensive housing rate during the 2016-17 academic year. When UMass provided the student-athletes with aid that exceeded their cost of attendance, it violated Bylaw 15.1 and immediately rendered the student-athletes ineligible under both NCAA Bylaws 15.01.2 and 15.1. UMass then permitted those student-athletes to compete and provided them with actual and necessary expenses in violation of NCAA Bylaws 12.11.1 and 16.8.1, respectively.
Although UMass agreed that it violated Bylaws 15 and 16, it argued that it did not violate NCAA Bylaw 12.11.1 because (1) it did not knowingly permit any ineligible student-athletes to compete and (2) NCAA Bylaw 12.11.1 is not commonly cited in Level III cases if there is no knowledge of ineligibility and has only recently been cited with more frequency in Level I and Level II cases. UMass’ positions, however, are not supported by the plain language of the Bylaw nor the COI’s past decisions. NCAA Bylaw 12.11.1 contains no knowledge requirement. To the contrary, it places an affirmative obligation on all institutions to withhold ineligible student-athletes from competition. In this way, NCAA Bylaw 12.11.1 memorializes the membership’s commitment to fair play, and a level playing field, as a bedrock principle of intercollegiate competition. Simply stated, it is a standard of fair play.
COI expressly stated that violations of Bylaw 12.11.1 occur regardless of whether an institution has knowledge of the student-athletes’ ineligibility. See University of Washington (2020) (concluding, among other bylaws, that Washington violated Bylaw 12.11.1 when it provided impermissible travel costs to parents of prospects on their official visits and the student-athletes later enrolled and then competed for the institution) and Texas Christian University (2019) (concluding that a Bylaw 12.11.1 violation occurred and stating the bylaw “does not expressly differentiate between circumstances under which an institution knew (or should have known) of the ineligibility from those where there is no knowledge”). COI concluded that this case is akin to Washington and TCU and, thus NCAA Bylaw 12.11.1 is appropriate and it applies.
UMass’ observations of past Level I, Level II and Level III cases provide context, but do not make the application of Bylaw 12.11.1 any less appropriate based on the facts of this case. The Level III process is a separate process and not binding on Level I or Level II cases. More relevantly, in TCU, COI observed that recent cases and charging guidance may demonstrate an evolution of NCA Bylaw 12.11.1. The fact that Bylaw 12.11.1 may have been cited with less frequency years ago, does not make it any less applicable today.
UMass’ actions, or in some instances inaction, directly caused the student-athletes’ ineligibility. UMass has an obligation to ensure that it meets all requirements of NCAA membership, including correctly administering financial aid and ensuring that only eligible student-athletes compete on behalf of the institution. When an institution makes a mistake, it is accountable for the consequences of that mistake. Here, the mistake was providing excessive aid and the consequence was the requirement to withhold ineligible student-athletes from competition.
Pursuant to NCAA Bylaw 19.1.2 and based on the guidance of past COI cases involving financial aid violations, the Panel concluded that the violations are Level II. Bylaw 19.1.2-(d) specifically identifies multiple financial aid violations that do not amount to a lack of institutional control as an example of a Level II violation. This case involved multiple instances, student-athletes, sport programs, and years of impermissible financial aid. Further, the conduct was not isolated or limited. Additionally, the value of the impermissible aid was more than minimal, with one student-athlete receiving over $3,700.00. Recently, COI concluded that financial aid violations that occur over multiple years and involve a number of student-athletes constitute Level II violations. See California Polytechnic State University (2019) (concluding the violations were Level II when 256 student-athletes received $800.00 cash stipends that were not equal to the actual cost of books and the stipend caused 30 of those student-athletes to exceed their individual financial aid limits and the overages ranged from $5.00 to $734.00). Although guidance from past contested cases is limited, the COI has also accepted parties’ agreements that Level II violations occur when multiple student-athletes receive impermissible financial aid over multiple years. See Charleston Southern University (2018) (accepting agreed-upon Level II violations in an SDR when the institution allowed 34 student-athletes to use their financial aid book scholarships to purchase non-course related material) and University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff (2014) (concluding, among other violations, that Level II violations occurred when the institution provided 15 student-athletes with book scholarships when their financial aid packages did not include them). Consistent with NCAA Bylaw 19 and case guidance, the Panel concluded the violations are Level II.
Violations Not Demonstrated
The NCAA enforcement staff alleged that UMass failed to monitor its financial aid disbursement system and ensure compliance with financial aid legislation. The Panel did not conclude that a violation occurred because pertinent individuals involved in the financial aid process received proactive education, UMass had real-time collaborative monitoring systems in place and commissioned annual independent audits on its athletics financial transactions. Despite these measures, UMass made mistakes with respect to 12 student-athletes’ financial aid awards. UMass is accountable for these mistakes through the underlying violations and core and additional penalties. Albeit not perfect, its systems were not inadequate under the facts and circumstances of this case. The Panel concluded that a failure to monitor violation was not demonstrated.
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors in accordance with NCAA Bylaws 19.9.3 and 19.9.4
Aggravating Factors for the Institution
A history of Level I, Level II or major violations. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.3-(b).
Mitigating Factors for the Institution
An established history of self-reporting Level III or secondary violations. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.4-(d).
As a result of the foregoing, the Committee penalized UM as follows: