March 27, 2011

NCAA probes athletes' financial aid

Six hockey players are blindsided when UNE reacts to the probe with a pay-or-don't-play demand.

The NCAA is investigating possible financial aid violations by the University of New England that abruptly derailed the academic and athletic plans of six Canadian students this season and could result in sanctions for the hockey program.

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Kody Collins is one of six Canadian hockey players who were forced to make quick decisions about their schooling when UNE changed their financial aid awards last August.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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How NCAA polices the rule against athletic scholarships

The NCAA has required Division III schools to report the financial aid they award to athletes compared to that given to non-athletes every year since 2005.

The system was designed to create a uniform way for schools to prove they don’t award athletic scholarships – a longstanding principle in Division III sports.

“We want schools to gather the data, report it, and use it to determine whether or not student-athletes are receiving disproportionate aid,” said Dan Dutcher, the NCAA’s Division III vice president.

The process begins around September, when schools submit a report on the previous academic year.

If financial aid figures for athletes don’t mirror those for the student body as a whole, the report triggers a series of reviews.

A Level I review begins sometime in October, and several months pass before the review is closed or schools are notified of a Level II review.

During the second review period, schools are asked to provide any documentation they have to justify the aid, according to Eric Hartung, the NCAA’s associate director of research for Division III.

“Keep in mind, many of these schools are in contact with us throughout the process,” said Hartung.

“The vast majority are very proactive on this front and really want to make sure all their ducks are in a row.”

A fact-finding committee reviews the report, and if it finds a violation, the matter is forwarded to NCAA for enforcement.

Several months can elapse before the enforcement process is completed and sanctions are imposed on an institution.

Five years into the program, the majority of infractions stem from two specific situations, according to a May 2010 report by the NCAA.

The first concerns continuing uncertainty about the rules that prohibit giving financial aid to a student for any reason related to athletics – even including whether someone played high school sports or served in a leadership role as, say, a captain.

The second is when schools award aid for something that does not directly target athletes but turns out to give athletes a disproportionate amount of aid.

“As time goes on, the idea of a lack of knowledge is becoming something that may receive less credence moving forward,” said Dutcher, the Division III vice president. “Five years into it, I think there’s a widespread understanding of the process and its rationale.”

– Jenn Menendez

The investigation is apparently focusing on whether UNE, as a Division III school, broke NCAA rules that prohibit athletic scholarships for Division III athletes.

Kody Collins, a UNE sophomore defenseman from Keswick, Ontario, said he and five teammates were blindsided just weeks before the 2010-11 school year began when UNE asked them to come up with more than $8,000 each to replace financial aid the school had originally awarded them through a UNE Diversity Scholarship.

UNE told the students that if they wanted to play for the Nor'easters hockey team, they would have to come up with the money themselves. If they wanted to keep the scholarship funds, they would not be able to play hockey, he said.

"We were shocked," said Collins, who sat on the sidelines this year because he took the scholarship. "But I figured it was an issue that could be resolved. The options they gave us were to pay the additional amount and stay on the team, or not pay it, but not play hockey.

"All they said was they were trying to comply with NCAA rules and regulations," he said. "Every time we asked who we could talk to, it was just a big circle. So instead I'm getting penalized personally for a mistake they made. I'll never have that year of hockey back."

Stacey Osburn, an NCAA spokeswoman, said the organization's policy is to refrain from comment on matters under NCAA review.

"The school has some leeway as to whether or not they want to discuss the status of an investigation," Osburn said. "But we can't comment until an investigation has been closed."

A UNE administrator said the NCAA is studying financial reports the school is required to submit yearly, and the college is cooperating fully. It may take several months for the review to be completed.

"We're cooperating with them in good faith," said John Tumiel, senior adviser to President Danielle Ripich. "We've agreed to not get out in front. When they have reached their conclusion, we will have a more detailed statement as well."

Thomas White, UNE's vice president for communications, said the school is eager to respond.

"At which time we can, we will," White said. "My take on this is that there was nothing the university did intentionally to flout these regulations. ... Mutually, we're trying to get to the bottom of this to find out what happened."

AN ETHICAL ISSUE

UNE has a picturesque main campus along the Saco River in Biddeford and a branch in Portland. It had a total enrollment of 6,328 last year.

The school offers some 30 undergraduate majors in the College of Osteopathic Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences and 14 athletic programs in men's and women's sports. The Nor'easters compete in The Commonwealth Coast Conference, with the exception of men's hockey, which competes in the Eastern College Athletic Conference East League.

Collins, 21, the Ontario student, played his freshman season at UNE but sat out this season. He plans to transfer to the University of Southern Maine to play hockey next year. He lost a year of hockey eligibility.

He said his family was asked to come up with a total of $8,422 when his Diversity Scholarship was reduced from $12,000 to $3,578 just weeks before the fall semester began.

The total cost of tuition at UNE is $40,740 a year, according to the school's website.

(Continued on page 2)

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