The NCAA Committee on Infractions (“Committee” or “Panel” or “COI”) recently issued its findings and found that the University of Washington (“Institution” or “UW” or “Washington”) committed violations of NCAA legislation.
The case centered on Washington’s admitted violations that it impermissibly paid for parents’ travel in conjunction with prospects’ official visits. For over two years, the baseball staff misunderstood recruiting legislation relating to parental travel. Consequently, the baseball coaches arranged for and provided impermissible recruiting benefits in the form of airfare for the parents of 14 prospects in conjunction with the prospects’ official paid visits. The payment of airfare for individuals other than prospects is permissible only in the sports of basketball and Football Bowl Subdivision (“FBS”) football. These benefits resulted in three student-athletes competing and receiving expenses while ineligible in a total of 61 contests.
The provision of impermissible payment of parents’ airfare over two years demonstrated that the institution failed to monitor recruiting travel over the period of the violations. The failure to monitor occurred because Washington: (1) failed to establish an effective system for ensuring compliance with NCAA official visit transportation legislation and (2) did not provide pertinent rules education to applicable staff members. All violations are Level II.
The Panel classified this case as Level II-Mitigated. Utilizing the current penalty guidelines and bylaws authorizing additional penalties, the panel adopts and prescribes the following principal penalties: one year of probation, a $5,000 fine, recruiting restrictions and a vacation of records.
The Committee concluded that UW committed the following violations:
Violations of NCAA Division I Manual Bylaws 13.2.1 and 22.214.171.124 (2016-17 through 2018-19) and 12.11.1 and 16.8.1 (2017-18)
Over portions of three academic years, the baseball staff arranged for and provided approximately $7,795 in impermissible recruiting benefits in the form of airfare for the parents of 14 prospective student-athletes to accompany the prospects on their official paid visits to the Institution. As a result of the impermissible benefits, three student-athletes competed in 61 contests and received actual and necessary expenses while ineligible. The Panel concluded that Level II violations occurred.
Between October 2016 to September 2018, the baseball program paid the cost of airfare for parents of visiting prospects. As a result of these impermissible recruiting benefits, student-athletes competed and received expenses while ineligible over three years. The recruiting benefits and resulting competition and expenses violated Bylaws 13, 16 and 12. The Institution agreed that violations of Bylaws 13 and 16 occurred but contested Bylaw 12.
Bylaw 13 governs recruiting, with Bylaw 13.2 outlining offers and inducements and Bylaw 13.5 detailing restrictions around official paid visits. Among other restrictions, coaches are prohibited from paying airline transportation costs for relatives of prospects around prospects’ official visits. Pursuant to Bylaw 16.8.1, an institution may provide actual and necessary expenses only to eligible student-athletes to represent the institution in practice and competition. Finally, institutions must withhold ineligible student-athletes from competition pursuant to Bylaw 12.11.1.
From October 2016 to September 2018, the baseball program admittedly violated recruiting travel legislation by paying the cost of airfare for 23 parents of 14 prospective student-athletes in conjunction with the prospects’ official paid visits to Washington’s campus. These airfare payments ranged from $136 to $881 and totaled $7,795. These payments violated Bylaws 13.2.1 which prohibits staff members from giving or offering to give any benefits to a prospective student-athlete or his or her relatives. The payments also violated Bylaw 126.96.36.199, which prohibits athletics department staff members from paying, providing or arranging for the payment of transportation costs incurred by relatives of a prospective student-athlete to visit the campus or elsewhere, except for automobile mileage reimbursement and limited ground transportation in the institution’s locale. These payments rendered three of the prospects, who later became student-athletes, ineligible. As a result, the three student-athletes competed and impermissibly received actual and necessary expenses while ineligible in 61 contests over three academic years. The competition-related expenses violated Bylaw 16.8.1.
Because it is such a well-founded and understood rule, impermissible payment of recruiting-related travel, particularly air travel costs, for individuals associated with prospects in violation of Bylaw 13 is rare. The COI, however, has previously encountered such violations under the previous violation structure. See Howard University (2001) (concluding that the institution committed a major violation of Bylaw 13 recruiting travel legislation when it paid the cost of airfare for the junior college coach of a men’s basketball prospect in conjunction with the prospect’s visit to the institution’s campus); Middle Tennessee State University (1993) (concluding that, following the official visit of a prospect, the institution committed a major violation of Bylaw 13 recruiting travel legislation when the head men’s basketball coach provided a total of $356 to the prospect’s parents, $184 in excess of the amount the parents should have received for driving between the institution’s campus and the home of the prospect); and University of Florida (1990) (concluding that the institution committed a major violation of Bylaw 13 recruiting travel legislation when the men’s basketball coaching staff allowed the mother of a prospect, who accompanied the prospect on his official paid visit to the university’s campus, to use the return portion of her son’s airline ticket after he stayed at the university to enroll in summer school). The prohibition against paying the travel costs for relatives or other individuals associated with prospects has remained constant. Thus, violations of Bylaw 13 occurred.
The impermissible competition also violated Bylaw 12.11.1. The Institution disagreed that it violated this bylaw. While Washington acknowledged that the violations occurred, and acknowledged that three student-athletes competed in 61 contests while ineligible, the institution argued that Bylaw 12.11.1 required institutional knowledge of the ineligibility. And because a baseball staff member claimed to have been told by the compliance staff that it was permissible to pay for visiting parents’ airfare, the program purportedly did not realize it was violating recruiting legislation by paying for parents’ travel. Thus, it did not know that the affected student-athletes later competed while ineligible.
Bylaw 12.11.1 contains no knowledge requirement. The plain language of Bylaw 12.11.1 specifies that, if a student-athlete is ineligible under the provisions of the constitution, bylaws or other regulations of the Association, the Institution shall be obligated to apply immediately the applicable rule and to withhold the student-athlete from all intercollegiate competition. In fact, outside certain provisions of Bylaw 14, Bylaw 12.11.1 is the single piece of legislation that holds institutions responsible for ensuring that ineligible student-athletes do not compete. Further, it holds institutions accountable for the unfair advantage gained when ineligible student-athletes are permitted to compete, regardless of institutional knowledge.
The COI has regularly applied Bylaw 12.11.1, regardless of whether there was knowledge of ineligibility. Recently, the COI expressly concluded that knowledge is not necessary for Bylaw 12.11.1 to apply. See Texas Christian University (TCU) (2019), (concluding that Bylaw 12.11.1 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).6 Here, the institution conceded that three student-athletes competed while ineligible in a total of 61 contests. While the COI recognized in TCU that allowing an ineligible student-athlete to compete when the institution knows of ineligibility is “particularly troublesome,” knowledge of ineligibility is not a prerequisite for Bylaw 12.11.1 to apply. See also California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) (2019) (concluding that Bylaw 12.11.1 applied when the institution did not realize that it had been violating financial aid legislation for numerous years and, as a result, student-athletes competed while ineligible). Moreover, the COI and the Infractions Appeals Committee (“IAC”) have established in previous decisions that ignorance of rules is not a valid defense for violating legislation. See University of Central Florida (2012) (concluding that pleading ignorance of the rules does not excuse or even mitigate (a) violation) and Head Men’s Soccer Coach Jacksonville University, IAC Report No. 187 (2002) (concluding that ignorance of the rules is not a defense). Washington did not provide any specific examples to support its position that actual knowledge of the ineligibility is required before the bylaw can be cited.
Finally, in applying Bylaw 12.11.1, the COI has also recognized the importance of adhering to this bylaw in the context of competitive equity. Specifically, institutions that violate Bylaw 12.11.1 by allowing ineligible student-athletes to compete, as in this case, receive a competitive advantage over institutions that comply with NCAA legislation. See Savannah State University (2019) (applying Bylaw 12.11.1 and concluding that the institution received a competitive advantage when student-athletes competed while ineligible) and North Carolina Central University (NCCU) (2018) (same). Here, Washington had an unfair advantage when three student-athletes competed in 61 contests without being withheld and going through the separate student-athlete reinstatement process.
Violations of NCAA Division I Manual Constitution 2.8.1 (2016-17 through 2018-19)
For portions of three academic years, Washington failed to monitor recruiting travel in its baseball program by failing to comply with official visit transportation legislation and provide adequate NCAA rules education and training. The Institution disputed the allegation. The Panel concluded that a Level II violation occurred.
Between October 2016 and September 2018, Washington violated the NCAA principle of rules compliance when it failed to adequately monitor the baseball program’s official visits by failing to establish an adequate system for ensuring compliance with NCAA official visit transportation legislation and not providing adequate NCAA rules education and training to certain institutional staff members. As a result, the violations detailed above occurred. In failing to adequately monitor recruiting travel associated with official visits, Washington violated Constitution 2.8.1.
Article 2 of the NCAA Constitution sets forth core principles for institutions conducting intercollegiate athletics programs. Constitution 2.8.1 requires an institution to abide by all rules and regulations, monitor compliance and report instances of noncompliance.
Key Washington staff members responsible for carrying out official visits in compliance with NCAA legislation misunderstood or did not know the rules. This resulted in the baseball program violating recruiting legislation over several years. The violations reflected weaknesses in the institution’s monitoring of recruiting travel administration and related education. In turn, this permitted violations to occur over three academic years.
The administration of the recruiting travel process included a monitoring system comprised of two steps. First, a preapproval process in which coaches submitted official visit requests and corresponding paperwork to the compliance staff for review and approval, followed by a post-visit review to ensure compliance with NCAA legislation. Each of these processes had weaknesses and, as a whole, the system was inadequate.
The preapproval process was inadequate because it permitted the baseball staff to book travel without any review and preapproval from compliance. There was no exchange of information between compliance and the travel office when flights were purchased. In essence, the purchasing of flights occurred in a vacuum, with only the baseball staff being aware. Additionally, while the preapproval forms requested information regarding accompanying individuals’ (i.e. parents’) lodging, it did not request travel information for persons accompanying a prospect. Further, it did not require flight itineraries to be included in the corresponding request paperwork. The pre-approval paperwork only required general arrival and departure times to verify compliance with the NCAA 48-hour rule.
The post-visit reconciliation process also had critical holes. This process failed to detect official visit transportation violations on the backend. A key omission was the fact that the post-visit packet of documentation did not include all travel expenses and receipts for an official visit. Direct-billed expenses, for example, airfare and lodging, were not required to be included in the post-visit paperwork. Additionally, the post-visit reconciliation packet did not require coaches to include all flight itineraries. Some packages included parental flight itineraries while some did not. The reimbursement packets on four official visit weekends in 2016, 2017 and 2018 did include documentation of parents’ flights. However, that information was not flagged nor investigated by compliance and the violations went undetected.
Finally, key individuals in the reconciliation process were not educated on applicable NCAA rules. A lack of targeted education permitted the violations to go undetected over portions of three academic years. Although recruiting travel legislation was a subject presented during compliance sessions, the travel manager did not receive pertinent education. She did not recall receiving any rules education relating to recruiting official visits. And, prior to the fall of 2018, when the institution became aware of the baseball program impermissibly paying for parents’ flights, the travel manager thought that the institution could pay for parental travel in baseball, like football and basketball.
When an institution’s policies and procedures for overseeing aspects of its athletics program are somehow deficient or not being followed and/or if an institution’s related compliance education was deficient, the COI has concluded that the institution failed to monitor as required by NCAA legislation. Here, the institution’s sport administrator for baseball attributed these multi-year payments to several factors, including miscommunication between the compliance office and the baseball program resulting in the coaches misunderstanding the legislation, inconsistencies in the paperwork and processes associated with official visits in the baseball program and educational deficiencies. These admitted weaknesses demonstrated a failure to monitor.
Washington’s failure to monitor aligned with recent COI decisions where the shortcomings in a narrow area demonstrated a failure to monitor violation. See University of San Francisco (2018) (accepting the parties’ agreement in an SDR that the institution failed to monitor when the institution failed to monitor due in part to its misunderstanding of recruiting legislation, its failure to follow up with coaches to ensure that free rounds of golf were not provided when written itineraries for recruiting visits included references to the prospects visiting local golf courses and its failure to collect and retain complete records of prospects’ visits) and Cal Poly (concluding that Cal Poly failed to monitor when, over a multi-year period, it misunderstood or misapplied financial aid legislation that required cash stipends for books equal the exact cost of the books and that it did not provide compliance education relating to book stipends). Notably, in the present case, like Cal Poly, Washington became aware that they had been violating NCAA legislation through educational sessions conducted by their respective conference offices, rather than through self-detection.
The COI’s failure to monitor violation does not condemn Washington’s entire compliance program, rather the misunderstandings and inadequacies in one area—official visits—demonstrate a failure to monitor that critical area. The COI has previously concluded narrow failure to monitor violations occur in a specific area as a result of misunderstandings and inadequate processes. See Campbell University (2016) (concluding that the institution’s misapplication and misunderstanding of eligibility certification legislation contributed to a failure to monitor) and Fordham University (2013) (concluding that the institution did not understand policies and monitor the award of athletically-related financial aid for prospects prior to full-time enrollment). These institutions, like Washington, did not understand various aspects of NCAA legislation and, in some instances, did not provide adequate compliance education, demonstrating that they failed to monitor. Consistent with Bylaw 19.1.2-(b), the Panel concluded that the failure to monitor is Level II.
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).
Multiple Level II violations by the institution. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.3-(g).
Mitigating Factors for the Institution
Prompt acknowledgement of the violation, acceptance of responsibility and imposition of meaningful corrective measures. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.4-(b).
Affirmative steps to expedite final resolution of the matter. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.4-(c).
An established history of self-reporting Level III or secondary violations. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.4-(d).
The violations were unintentional, limited in scope and represent a deviation from otherwise compliant practices by the institution. NCAA Bylaw 19.9.4-(g).
As a result of the foregoing, the Committee penalized UW as follows:
1. Public reprimand and censure.
2. Probation: One year of probation from October 9, 2020, through October 8, 2021.
3. Financial penalty: The institution will pay a fine of $5,000 to the NCAA.
4. Recruiting restrictions: Washington shall limit official paid visits in baseball to 18 for the 2020-21 academic year.
5. Vacation of team and individual records: Ineligible participation in the baseball program occurred over one academic year as a result of violations in this case. Therefore, pursuant to Bylaws 19.9.7-(g) and 188.8.131.52 and COI IOP 5-15-7, Washington shall vacate all regular season and conference tournament wins, records and participation in which the ineligible student-athletes competed from the time they became ineligible through the time they were reinstated as eligible for competition. Further, if the ineligible student-athletes participated in NCAA postseason competition at any time they were ineligible, Washington’s participation in the postseason contests in which the ineligible competition occurred shall be vacated. The individual records of the ineligible student-athletes shall also be vacated. However, the individual finishes and any awards for all eligible student-athletes shall be retained. Further, Washington’s records regarding its baseball program, as well as the records of the head coach, shall reflect the vacated records and be recorded in all publications in which such records are reported, including, but not limited to, institutional media guides, recruiting material, electronic and digital media plus institutional, conference and NCAA archives. Any institution that may subsequently hire the affected head coach shall similarly reflect the vacated wins in his career records documented in media guides and other publications cited above. Head coaches with vacated wins on their records may not count the vacated wins toward specific honors or victory “milestones” such as 100th, 200th or 500th career victories. Any public reference to the vacated records shall be removed from the athletics department stationery, banners displayed in public areas and any other forum in which they may appear. Any trophies awarded by the NCAA in baseball shall be returned to the Association.
Finally, to aid in accurately reflecting all institutional and student-athlete vacations, statistics and records in official NCAA publications and archives, the sports information director (or other designee as assigned by the director of athletics) must contact the NCAA Media Coordination and Statistics office and appropriate conference officials to identify the specific student-athletes and contests impacted by the penalties. In addition, the institution must provide the NCAA Media Coordination and Statistics office with a written report detailing those discussions. This written report will be maintained in the permanent files of the NCAA Media Coordination and Statistics office. This written report must be delivered to the office no later than 14 days following the release of this decision or, if the institution appeals the vacation penalty, at the conclusion of the appeals process. A copy of the written report shall also be delivered to the Office of the Committees on Infractions (“OCOI”) at the same time.