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.

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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 Collins family hired a lawyer in Portland when their demand for a written statement from the school explaining what happened left them with more questions than answers.

"I can't speak to Kody's legal rights, but I think it's clear you've got an ethical issue here that is difficult to deal with," said Matt Lane, an attorney with Preti Flaherty who represents the family. "It raises questions. UNE is going to point at the NCAA, and the NCAA will point at UNE. Who lost a year of eligibility? Kody Collins, who didn't do anything wrong. He's lost a year because of this. Because he wasn't able to get advice early enough or come up with another $8,000."

What appears to be in question, according to Lane and the Collins family, is a discrepancy between the amount of aid given to athletes and the amount awarded to the school's general population.

According to the NCAA Division III manual, Section 15.4 under the heading of "Financial Aid," "The financial aid package for a particular student-athlete cannot be clearly distinguishable from the general pattern of all financial aid for all recipients at the institution."

White confirmed that is what is in question: "It was not as if we were denying them an opportunity to play hockey, but because of this NCAA requirement, we realized we cannot allow them to do both. Either (they) can play hockey or they can accept the financial aid, but not both."

White said the school awards scholarships based not on diversity but on merit and need.

"A few years ago UNE offered diversity scholarships, but this has not been the case for a couple of years," he said. "At that time, the university broadly defined diversity to consider not only racial/ethnic, geographical and religious background, but also students in need who came from a variety of nontraditional backgrounds."

White could not explain why the letter Collins received last summer described his financial aid award as a "Diversity Scholarship."

The NCAA began requiring Division III schools to keep track of financial aid awards to athletes compared with non-athletes in the 2005-06 academic year.


Infractions -- both major and minor -- have been reported since, and schools have been penalized regardless of whether they violated the policy knowingly.

In January, the NCAA sanctioned State University College at Buffalo after concluding that financial aid awards to members of the men's and women's hockey teams were disproportionately large. The sanctions included two years' probation, financial aid restrictions and a postseason ban.

Bob Malakoff, an assistant professor of sports studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., said the NCAA would likely take honest errors into account when determining sanctions for rule violations.

But Malakoff, who previously sat on the NCAA Division III Management Council, disputed the general perception that large Division I schools are riddled with violations and the smaller Division III schools are completely clean.

"Neither is true," he said. "I'm not suggesting there are hundreds cheating at financial aid, but to suggest no one ever did is silly."

The Collins family said they were told that the financial aid package -- which included the diversity scholarship Kody Collins received -- would be renewable all four years. It was a major reason he chose to attend the Biddeford school.

In a June 1, 2009, email to Kody Collins' mother, Nancy Collins, UNE's associate director of admissions, Bob Pecchia, wrote: "Yes his scholarships are renewable."

Kody Collins said he was never told the exact reason for being awarded a Diversity Scholarship, but he assumed being an international student was what qualified him. His grades, according to the family, are strong.

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