NCAA Pulls Plug on Penalty

October 28, 2009

The Eastern Washington University Eagles may fly into the playoffs this season after all.

Tuesday, in a rare penalty reversal, the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Infractions Appeals Committee overturned a 2009 postseason ban that another NCAA panel had imposed on Eastern Washington’s football team.

In February, the Division I Committee on Infractions punished the institution because Paul Wulff, former Eagles head coach and current head coach at Washington State University, had allowed four players who did not meet the NCAA’s academic qualification to practice with the team and receive financial and housing assistance. Also in violation of NCAA rules, the football team had too many coaches. Wulff was chastised by the committee for failing to report these violations after he had been made aware of them. Eastern Washington was also reprimanded for having an inadequate compliance system in place to prevent such violations.

In addition to the postseason ban, Eastern Washington was put on a three-year probation, had its number of football coaches reduced and had to restrict the remaining coaches’ recruiting authority. At the time of the ruling, Eastern Washington officials generally accepted the Committee on Infractions’ ruling but bridled at the postseason ban, which they considered excessive. They appealed that penalty.

The Infractions Appeals Committee noted in its public report that the Committee on Infractions had based its postseason ban of Eastern Washington “substantially on its judgment” that the violations provided its football team with a “significant competitive advantage.” But the majority of the players who practiced with the team, despite NCAA rules, “never competed for the team or competed in a limited capacity.” Only one player competed for the team after his eligibility had been reinstated.

In reversing the ban, the Infractions Appeals Committee stated that “while the violations provided some competitive advantage, the conclusion that the advantage was ‘significant’ was a clear error of judgment, such that the imposition of the postseason ban was arbitrary.”

Bill Chaves, Eastern Washington athletics director, said he was pleased by the NCAA’s decision.

“In this scenario, the actual facts didn’t merit a postseason ban,” Chaves said. “In the past five of six years, only in those cases where unethical conduct or academic fraud was found were bans administered. Also, if you were a repeat violator, you were more likely to get a ban. None of these were the case with us.”

The Eastern Washington football team, which plays in the Big Sky Conference, is 5-3 this season and has made the playoffs in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) three of the past five years. Chaves said the team could make the postseason this year if it wins out the rest of the season. This new revelation is not lost on the team’s players, he noted.

“It only becomes a penalty if you make it a penalty,” said Chaves of the team’s impression of the recently reversed ban. “The coach told our players that it was lifted, and they were excited, of course. You always want the carrot of being able to show you’re the best in the postseason.”

Penalties handed down by the Committee on Infractions are rarely reversed by the Infractions Appeals Committee. Of the five appeals filed in 2008, only one was granted. In that one instance, a five-year probation imposed of Alabama State University for football recruiting violations was reduced to a three-year probation.

One of the most high-profile reversals also came in 2008 -- though the appeal had been filed the year prior -- when the NCAA reinstated wins from the 2005 season that the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team had been forced to vacate. Before the season in question, three Oklahoma players were compensated for work they did not complete at an automobile dealership near campus. Though the wins were reinstated, the University of Oklahoma was still accused of its “failure to monitor” its football team and adhere to NCAA compliance standards.

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