Brittany Collens, a professional tennis player and former member of the UMass women’s tennis team, was sitting in her car when she found out that the NCAA had stripped UMass’ 2017 Atlantic 10 championship.
Her current coach texted her an article saying that UMass had mistakenly paid two tennis players — including Collens — $252 for an on-campus dorm room phone after they had moved off campus, something the NCAA deemed an “impermissible benefit” that exceeded the amount of scholarship money UMass was allowed to award players.
On Oct. 16, the NCAA announced that clerical errors had made Collens and one other tennis player, as well as 10 men’s basketball players, ineligible to play. As a result, matches or games they participated in and won between 2014 and 2017 were slashed from their record, including the Atlantic 10 title.
“The way that the NCAA was punishing us, it had sent the message that we had cheated, and we had done something wrong,” Collens told Front Office Sports. She noted that athletes had no knowledge of the error. “We realized it’s such a much larger issue in which the NCAA really failed to protect their student-athletes. And it’s definitely not the first time, but we hope it’s the last.”
Former athletes on the women’s tennis team, who had no knowledge that they ever received extra money from the university, and didn’t even find out the program was under investigation until the penalty was handed down on Oct. 16 — are fighting back.
But they’re not just supporting an appeal of their own punishment. The athletes are calling for major reforms to the NCAA, and believe that the NCAA’s infractions system is unfair, overly punitive, and doesn’t serve the interest of college athletes.
“What they do is just not right,” Ana Yrazusta, who played on the 2017 conference champion team, told Front Office Sports. “I really hope that they can listen to us, because in the past, obviously, I don’t think they have listened that much.”
From numerous college athlete movements like Power 5 athletes’ calls for compensation, a union and enhanced COVID-19 protocols, to a recent survey that found the majority of Division I officials believe the governing body requires major reforms, former UMass women’s tennis players have joined an ever-growing community within college sports calling for major reforms of NCAA rules.
And while the NCAA continues to strip wins from programs like UMass men’s basketball and women’s tennis, because athletes accidentally received small extra benefits due to athletic department errors, watershed concerns about the safety of athletes during COVID-19 and whether rules regarding name, image and likeness will allow the NCAA to control their compensation opportunities loom large.
The NCAA’s investigation into UMass athletics began when the school’s athletic director, Ryan Bamford, asked NCAA officials to check a potential minor infraction within the program, Bamford said during a recent call with reporters. While the NCAA found no violations related to Bamford’s concern, they did find about $9,100 of scholarship money awarded to 10 men’s basketball players and two women’s tennis players.
Despite the fact that UMass correctly awarded scholarship money 98% of the time, the NCAA deemed these illegal benefits for which the program had to answer.
The tennis players weren’t aware that they had incorrectly received extra money for a phone line, said Collens, as their scholarship money arrives as a lump sum without a list of line items. And the program wasn’t aware either — if it had been, the error would have been corrected immediately and athletes who received these illegal benefits would have been reinstated in a matter of hours, Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade told reporters.
But because UMass didn’t catch its error, athletes played between 2014 and 2017 while technically ineligible.
Since UMass had approached the NCAA for fear of a potential violation, it originally agreed with a committee punishment should include one year of probation — which mostly involves UMass sending additional reports to the NCAA and completing extra compliance education — and a fine paid by the program to the NCAA, Bamford said.
But this agreement was rejected by a second committee, which found that the situation could have given a competitive advantage to the teams, and thus merited stripping wins, said David Roberts, a representative for the committee, on a call with reporters.
The week the Pac-12 and Big Ten decided to postpone fall sports seasons has also brought perhaps the most potent movement for college athletes to unionize since the Northwestern football team’s attempt in 2014.
This decision was made, of course, despite the fact that athletes had no knowledge that they had received these small fees, and had no knowledge there was even an investigation.
“I went from being devastated to being just so angry at the situation, and at the NCAA, and trying to understand why they’re punishing us when we had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Yrazusta said.
UMass spent more than $100,000 in legal fees, according to McGlade, who believes that the time, energy and financial resources used to adjudicate a clerical error were misguided.
Punishing athletes for an error they weren’t involved in was “inordinately punitive, and not in the spirit and the mission of what we do as an association,” McGlade said. She said she believes the penalty system needs a “reset.”
Bamford, whose father was also an NCAA athletic director, said he’s not only disillusioned with the decision, but is questioning an NCAA adjudication process he previously believed in. “I think that there was an abuse of power with the penalty structure,” he said.
The penalties may not just be overly punitive — they may not be legitimate for long. A recent court ruling in a case called Alston v. NCAA found that the governing body violates antitrust law when attempting to curb the amount of educational-related benefits to athletes. While the ruling specifically refers to basketball and football, it’s possible that the NCAA’s ability to punish schools for awarding educational benefits above the cost of attendance may be numbered.
The governing body is currently appealing the Alston decision to the Supreme Court.
UMass plans to appeal the decision. Meanwhile, Collens and her former teammates are taking their own steps to protest and advocate for reform within the NCAA. While Collens and Yrazusta don’t believe their future job prospects will be impacted, given that they had no involvement in the NCAA violations, they’re concerned about the reputation of their team and the future of UMass athletics.
Collens forwarded Front Office Sports a litany of tweets trashing UMass tennis, calling them cheaters, and implying they didn’t fairly win the 2017 Atlantic 10 championship. Yrazusta noted this misconception about the violation could discredit the achievements of future UMass women’s tennis teams.
To combat this, the day after the decision, Collens wrote a petition explaining her team’s situation and posted it online, and has begun reaching out to media organizations to plead the team’s case publicly. Collens said the petition has “exploded.”
“Student athletes started to get the memo that this could have been us, and this can be us,” Collens said. As of Oct. 23, the petition sports more than 1,600 signatures that Collens said are from supporters worldwide.
The team’s former coach, Judy Dixon, is also helping athletes battle for change. Like Bamford, Dixon describes herself as someone who believed in the NCAA’s model, but has begun to question its effectiveness because of what happened to her former athletes.
Senators and witnesses debated whether Congress should write its own laws for NIL, give the power to the NCAA through an antitrust exemption, or let states determine how they want to handle athlete compensation.
“I tell kids that the system will right the wrongs,” Dixon told Front Office Sports. “And right now, I have women on the team who now are feeling like the system doesn’t support them, and that doing things the right way sometimes gets things done wrongly.”
“And so, how do you make them continue to believe?” she said.
During the week after the decision, Dixon was invited to a Zoom meeting among Division I tennis coaches to explain the severe punishment handed down to her former team.
“They were, I think, stunned into silence,” Dixon said. Dixon also described comments from a coach who she characterized as prominent and experienced, saying that they were “stunned,” and that they wanted to support the team. Dixon noted that many athletes and coaches are angry with the NCAA. “I think that the NCAA, in some way, really doesn’t want that to come out,” Dixon said.
As calls for NCAA reforms become louder still amid the pandemic and pending name, image and likeness legislation, UMass tennis players will continue to advocate for their own program as well as others.
“My teams were always fighters,” Dixon said. “I was proud of them then, and I’m proud of them now.”