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Not Ready for Prime (or Big-)Time

May 8, 2008

No college or university has ramped up into big-time football faster than Florida International University. It did not have a football team at all until 2002, and four short years later made the jump from Division I-AA to I-A, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's top competitive level. And while the team's development has not been pain-free -- the team has struggled on the field, and had an unfortunate foray into the national spotlight during its prime-time brawl with the neighboring squad from the University of Miami -- things were even messier behind the scenes.

That was clear Wednesday as the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions placed Florida International on four years' probation for a series of violations that occurred in the university's sports program between 2002 and 2007, when the athletics program added scores of players but did not expand its staff for keeping track of players' eligibility and academic standing. As a result, the panel found, Florida International allowed 45 athletes in 15 sports to compete when they should have been inelible, because the university misapplied basic rules governing full-time enrollment, transfer of credits, and progress toward a degree. The institution also awarded too many scholarships in three sports.

The infractions panel cited the university for lacking "institutional control" over the sports program because key officials in other departments had lacked training in NCAA rules and because some Florida International officials had been aware at the time that their software for tracking athletes did not contain key information necessary for the task.

At a time when many colleges aim ever higher for the next rung in athletic competition and the visibility and dollars they hope will come along with it -- such that the NCAA has temporarily imposed a moratorium on new members joining Division I while it studies whether or how to limit the influx -- Florida International looks like a cautionary tale of what can happen if an institution moves too fast.

"This is a textbook example of what happens when a program moves to Division I-A without adequate infrastructure," said Josephine R. Potuto, chairwoman of the Division I infractions committee and Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law. "They just weren't ready on the compliance end to make the move. When you don't have compliance and structures in place on the academic side to certify eligibility, you might be lucky enough not to fall into violation. But it would be just luck that it didn't happen."

Florida International wasn't lucky; dozens of athletes were improperly certified as being eligible to play when, in fact, they were not. When a new regime of athletics administrators came in in 2006 -- with the university already on probation for other rules violations -- they spotted irregularities and immediately began an investigation. Based on that inquiry, Florida International proposed scholarship reductions in 12 sports, penalties that the NCAA accepted. The association also required the university to vacate all individual and team records and victories that involved the ineligible players, and extended the university's probation from the previous violations, which was to expire later this month, for four more years.

Although Florida International was eligible for additional penalties because it was a "repeat violator" of NCAA rules, the infractions panel chose not to impose them because of the cooperation and improved organization of the university's current sports administrators.

“Upon discovering these violations, we put in place new compliance procedures that are much more suited to the university FIU has become in the last 10 years,” said its president, Modesto A. Maidique. “We now have the level of staffing and the redundancies that will prevent these types of infractions from occurring again in the future.”

This is the second time in three years that the NCAA has attributed a college's rule breaking to its impatience in trying to build a sports program too fast. In 2005, the Division I infractions panel found that the State University of New York at Stony Brook had been "overwhelmed" by the paperwork and layers of rules in the two years after the university moved to Division I from Division III in 1999.

 

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