Down and Out in Division I

SUNY system investigates academic and behavioral problems within Binghamton’s men’s basketball program, which has been accused of lowering standards to boost on-court performance.
October 6, 2009

The men’s basketball team at the State University of New York at Binghamton is finally getting attention -- just not the kind the institution’s president and athletic director envisioned eight years ago, when they pushed their athletics program to join the high-profile ranks of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I.

Accusations that academic and behavioral issues were rife among the team’s players started circulating last spring, when the team earned its first bid to play in the Division I NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, known colloquially as “March Madness.” A widely read article in The New York Times, published just before the tournament, documented the team’s myriad off-the-court problems and criticized Kevin Broadus, Binghamton head basketball coach, as being “known for recruiting good players with questionable backgrounds.” (Broadus was an assistant coach at Georgetown University and helped recruit a number of academically underprepared players, including one from an acknowledged high school diploma mill.) The Times article also included the comments of faculty members concerned that the institution had lowered its admissions standards for athletes in recent years.

The Binghamton situation burst back into public view two weeks ago, when Emanuel (Tiki) Mayben, a senior guard and one of Broadus’s troubled recruits, was arrested for dealing cocaine and dismissed from the team. Following the high-profile arrest, Sally Dear, an adjunct professor who told The New York Times last winter that Binghamton’s athletics department pressured her to compromise her grading system to help failing basketball players, lost her position at the institution. Dear believes her dismissal was retaliatory in nature and told The Times, “I’m being fired for being ethical.”

Further shaking up the troubled basketball team, Joel Thirer, the longtime Binghamton athletics director, resigned his position, telling The Press & Sun-Bulletin, a local paper, that Lois B. DeFleur, Binghamton's president, was “really, really upset” and that she was “fed up” and had “had it with being embarrassed” by the team’s behavior. After Thirer’s announcement, five players with checkered pasts, including some of the team’s leading scorers, were cut from the roster.

No reason was given for this mass dismissal of players, but Broadus, who did not respond to requests for further comment, did release a statement.

“It’s important that everyone who is playing for Binghamton University and for me be on the same page as to what kind of commitment we expect of our student-athletes, both on and off the court,” Broadus wrote. “There’s only one captain steering this ship and that’s me. If any of the young men in our program don’t respect the decisions that have been made or the rules we have in place, then they need to move on with their lives. We’ll play with the student-athletes who want to be here, have respect for the institution, the game and the opportunities that we have provided for them.”

Friday, Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the SUNY system, announced that the system would oversee an independent audit of Binghamton’s basketball program, taking over an audit DeFleur had committed to completing herself. David Henahan, a spokesman for the SUNY system, said he could not offer any further details about the audit, but he did note that DeFleur would be coming to Albany on Wednesday to meet with the chancellor and that further details about the investigation would follow.

Zimpher also requested that Binghamton reinstate Dear, the professor who was critical of the basketball team’s influence on her classes. Henahan would not address whether Zimpher thought Dear’s dismissal was retaliatory in nature. He only noted that Zimpher pushed to reinstate Dear “to ensure that her concerns get a thorough review during the audit.”

Binghamton athletics officials, including the new interim athletics director and Broadus, were told by Gail Glover, the university’s main spokeswoman, not to respond to requests for comment. When contacted, Glover also did not provide access to any Binghamton administrators for comment.

She did, however, note in a statement that critics should “not forget” that Binghamton’s athletics program, on the whole, has achieved much academic success within its conference. For example, its athletes had the second highest grade point average -- 3.12 -- in the America East Conference’s 2008-9 Academic Cup. The entire program has also traditionally had a strong Academic Progress Rate and Graduation Success Rate, both NCAA measures of an athletics program’s academic success. The basketball team's latest APR is 956 out of 1000, which is above the Division I average of 934 and in the 70th-80th percentile rank within the sport. Its latest federal graduation rate, however, was 53 percent.

Glover also noted that this recent controversy will influence the basketball program to make some changes in its recruiting practices.

“Coach Kevin Broadus has been asked to provide the President with a recruitment and supervision plan for Binghamton’s basketball program,” Glover wrote in a statement. “The President expects that this plan will specify the criteria, processes and practices that will reflect the University’s academic and behavior standards. … As President DeFleur has said, Binghamton University will emerge stronger and will face the future with pride.”

Some prominent Binghamton faculty members, like their administrators, have been mum about the controversy surrounding the basketball team. Sandra D. Michael, the university's current faculty athletics representative to the NCAA and a biological sciences professor, did not respond to requests for comment. Dennis J. Lasser, a former NCAA faculty athletics representative and professor in the School of Management who has been a vocal critical of the basketball program as of late, also did not return calls for comment.

Sara A. Reiter, chair of the Faculty Senate and a professor in the School of Management, said she was critical of the decision to move to Division I when it was proposed over a decade ago, but said that she has slowly become a convert. As the current controversy surrounding the basketball team appeared to revolve around behavioral rather than academic issues, she said, she had few concerns about the program as a whole.

“Over all, I think it’s worked out very well,” Reiter said of the program’s move to Division I. “If there are things that should be changed here, I have full faith that the ongoing investigation will highlight them.… This is bad publicity and a terrible thing, but I don’t think there’s a terrible problem at the core of our athletics program. I don’t think there’s anything near that negative.”

James A. Stark, chair of the Faculty Senate’s Intercollegiate Athletics Committee and an art professor, had a similarly reserved response to the black cloud that has been hovering over Binghamton’s basketball team. He also described the problem as more behavioral than academic in nature.

“The basketball team has received a lot of attention because of the history that has followed Broadus,” Stark said. “We’ve brought in students who are marginal, there’s no question about that. But I believe we’re set up in a way to help them succeed. Among my colleagues, there’s a world of difference of opinion. But I don’t think anything has been seriously compromised by our move to Division I.”

Stark also sympathized with Broadus’s recruiting strategy, noting what he called “demographic” difficulties that occur when scouting basketball players in particular, as opposed to other sports. (Thirteen of 16 players on last year's team were black, even though black students only make up about five percent of the overall undergraduate student body at Binghamton.)

"What I worry about most, is that these players -- and I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way -- a lot of them come from demographics and personal situations that, in and of themselves, are very difficult,” Stark explained. “Basketball is, to a very large extent, an urban, city game and comes with all those kinds of problems. I, myself, have had the opportunity of second chances many times before in my life and made good on them. It worries me that [in the future] we might not be able to give some of these players a second chance – like those who transfer from other institutions or come from junior college because they couldn’t get in initially. … It’d be terrific if we were a major school with a well-established reputation and could have our pick of the top recruits and so on, but we’re not that.”


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