Free Textbooks, Big Price for 'Bama

June 12, 2009

The University of Alabama is paying the price for abuse of a free textbook program it offers its scholarship athletes.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I Committee on Infractions announced Thursday that it had levied significant penalties on Alabama’s athletics program for “major violations” involving 16 sports, including its high-profile football and baseball teams. More than 200 athletes “misused the university’s textbook distribution program,” according to the infractions report. The retail value of the improperly awarded books totaled nearly $40,000. Still, not all of these athletes purposely violated rules.

Only 22 of the 201 athletes in question were identified as “intentional wrongdoers,” or those who purposely took extra textbooks and received what the NCAA calls “improper benefits.” The textbooks redistributed to friends and significant others by these athletes ranged in value from one book worth $32.30 taken by a women’s track athlete to a lot of books, worth $3,947.19, purloined by a football player. Only when a bookstore employee at Alabama tipped off the university in 2007 to some of these suspiciously high charges for textbooks did the institution take action and investigate.

Most of the “intentional wrongdoers,” 14, were men’s and women’s track and field athletes. The four most valuable lots of books taken, however, were by members of the football team.

None of these athletes were found to have resold textbooks or other materials for a profit. In addition, none of the athletes were found to have received any “non-academic” items, such as electronic devices or clothing, free from the bookstore.

Despite this, the report notes that “there was a sharp increase in the total cost of books and supplies over a two-year period” from the 2004-5 to 2006-7 academic years as a result of these violations. The Committee on Infractions stated that this should have been a warning sign to administrators, leading to the finding that the university "failed to monitor" this program. The university was unable to supply textbook records prior to the fall of 2005, leaving officials uncertain if any similar violations had taken place in the past.

As punishment for these infractions, the NCAA placed Alabama on three years' probation, and ordered it to pay a $43,900 fine -- the approximate value of the books obtained by “intentional wrongdoers,” multiplied by two.

Most prominently, however, Alabama’s football team must vacate all wins in which the seven players who have been identified as “intentional wrongdoers” participated. Some sports news sources, including ESPN, estimate this could amount to as many as 21 games during the tenure of the former head coach Mike Shula and the current head coach, Nick Saban.

Individual records of “intentional wrongdoers” from the men’s tennis team and the men’s and women’s track and field teams must also be vacated. Team point totals in these sports must also be adjusted accordingly.

This is the fourth time since 1995 Alabama has been convicted of NCAA infractions. Most recently, in 2002, the university’s football team was penalized for recruiting violations. Previously, in 1999, the men’s basketball team was penalized for similar recruiting infractions.

Paul Dee, chair of the Committee on Infractions and lecturer of law and education at the University of Miami, said the university’s status as a “repeat offender” did play a role in determining its punishment. Still, he acknowledged that the most severe penalty possible, the so-called "death penalty" of suspending a program for an entire season or longer, was not considered by the committee.

“I think the penalty is the appropriate one,” said Dee, arguing that it still sends a strong message to other potential repeat violators. “The vacation of records properly addresses those involved.”

Mal Moore, director of athletics at Alabama, said that the university “acknowledged” the violations and “accepted” its punishment. He noted that the institution “failed to monitor” its free textbook program in the past but asserted that policies have been put into place to prevent similar violations in the future. In addition, he made sure to point out that these were violations that were limited to athletes only.

“No coach or staff member was involved in this violation,” Moore said. “No sport gained a competitive advantage, and not one athlete pocketed one dollar.”

Still, near the end of a conference call Thursday afternoon, Moore knew what most Alabamans were really concerned about.

“In no way does this impact the ability of our football team to compete in the future,” he said.

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