The NCAA is stripping the University of Massachusetts women’s tennis team of three years of victories, including the 2017 Atlantic 10 championship, over the improper reimbursement of a $252 phone bill.
The governing body concluded the Amherst school provided impermissible financial aid benefits that exceeded the full cost of attendance to two women’s tennis and 10 men’s basketball players. The basketball team will vacate 59 wins as a result of the sanctions.
The NCAA said four athletes received a higher housing rate after they moved to less-expensive off-campus housing, while eight others continued to receive a telecom fee for those who live in on-campus after they moved to off. One athlete received both. The overpayments caused the athletes to compete while ineligible.
Brittney Collins, who has competed professionally on the ITF circuit since departing UMass in 2017, told the Boston Globe that her team has been branded as cheaters for an off-campus phone jack neither Collens nor her roommate knew they had.
“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?’” said Collins, who has started an online petition in support of an appeal that had surpassed 3,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning.
“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.”
According to the Globe, the school’s athletic department brought in the NCAA for guidance on an internal audit several years ago when the governing body discovered “a little over $9,100 in impermissible aid” during a review of financial aid records. Of that $9,100, $252 went to the tennis team.
UMass plans to appeal the committee’s decision to vacate victories.
“As an athletics department we accept that we made administrative mistakes in the distribution of athletic aid through our financial aid process,” UMass director of athletics Ryan Bamford said Friday. “However, we do not believe that the penalties imposed by the NCAA are appropriate, nor proportional to the violations that occurred. These were simply operational errors in our compliance systems that did not functionally detect payments above our cost of attendance. The errors occurred with no intent to gain a competitive or recruiting advantage, or to compromise the collegiate model. Our administrative and coaching staffs and student-athletes were completely unaware of the mistakes until we audited our records as part of the NCAA review. To vacate wins as a form of penalty – hurting our student-athletes who did nothing wrong – is an overreach by the infractions panel and is deeply disappointing.
“This unfortunate error in our operational processes has led to a comprehensive review of our procedures for setting and distributing athletic scholarship aid,” Bamford added. “We have updated our procedures, invested in new compliance software and added a full-time position in student financial services to assist our department in monitoring the financial aid disbursement process.”
The committee said a former associate athletics director’s misunderstanding of financial aid rules and administrative error resulted in the violations.