Unlikely 'Death Penalty' for a Tennis Team

May 5, 2005

Asked to predict which institution would join Southern Methodist University in the pantheon of worst rules violators in the history of college sports -- becoming only the second recipient of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's so-called death penalty -- most observers would have guessed highly visible repeat wrongdoers like Auburn University or the University of Kentucky.

In fact, though, the NCAA has passed up several opportunities since 1987, when it barred SMU's football team from playing for a year, to inflict that ultimate punishment on other major sports powers. Skeptics have assumed that the NCAA might never go there again. Wednesday it did, but not in a predictable way.

The NCAA's Division III Committee on Infractions dropped the hammer Wednesday on MacMurray College, barring the men's tennis team at the Illinois private college from intercollegiate competition for the next two years and from postseason play in 2007-8 and 2008-9.

The panel concluded that by giving more than $160,000 in athletic scholarship money to 10 foreign tennis players over four years, MacMurray's former coach (which, as is standard NCAA practice, it did not identify) had so knowingly and blatantly violated the golden rule of Division III -- a prohibition on athletically rewarded financial aid -- that a ban on competition, as unusual as it is, was entirely appropriate.

"These penalties are justified," said Gerald Young, acting chair of the Division III infractions panel and associate athletics director at Carleton College. The coach "disregarded one of Division III's most fundamental and best known rules."

According to the infractions panel, the coach -- who began working at MacMurray as a mathematics professor in 1999 before being asked to take on the coaching duties -- established a scholarship fund for international students with financial backing from his father in 2000. Between that year and 2004, the fund gave out $162,000 in aid to 10 tennis players, mostly from Argentina and Kenya, violating NCAA rules against improper financial aid and improper benefits.

Young described the coach as a "big hearted man who felt he was doing what was best for students in general." But he also knew he was violating the rules, Young said, and proceeded nonetheless. The infractions panel charged him with violating its rules on ethical behavior.

The NCAA credited MacMurray officials with reporting the violations themselves in 2004 and with cooperating with NCAA investigators to figure out what had happened. But the NCAA found the college to have lacked "institutional control" over the sports program because it "should have had a compliance system in place that would have prevented," or at least uncovered, the violations.

The report by the Committee on Infractions also noted that MacMurray's former athletics director had retired six weeks before the college had its hearing before the panel. "Evidence at the hearing indicated he claimed to be unaware of the violations, though it is hard to understand how he could not have known. The institution is small, enrolling less than 700 students. Of those, only eight to 10 are international students... For there to suddenly be a large influx of international student-atheltes on the tennis team could not have gone unnoticed by the former director of athletics."

"How it went on so long is obviously part of the lack of institutional control," said Young.

The former coach, who is still a professor at MacMurray, could not be reached for comment, and the college's spokesman did not return messages seeking comment.

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