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A Division III NCAA Scandal Shows Even Small Schools Will Pay to Win

A pay-for-play scandal involving the Baruch College women's basketball team reflects a growing number of Division III schools that seem more interested in athletic success than NCAA player compensation limits.
July 8, 2016, 1:38pm
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In 2005, Baruch College hired a new vice-president to oversee 17 departments, including athletics. Baruch is a small City University of New York institution of roughly 14,000 undergraduates quietly situated on a couple blocks in the middle of Manhattan, and it is very possible you have never heard of it before reading this sentence, which appears to have been precisely what the vice-president hoped to alter through sports. According to a former director of athletics at the school, the vice-president wanted to build winning teams to "compete with the NYUs and be able to make NCAA tournaments." Much of this effort, according to a NCAA infractions report cum case study, focused on the women's basketball program. And much of it apparently violated the association's athlete compensation rules.

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The allegations read like a treatment for a Will Ferrell vehicle: A little-known Division III institution attempts to raise its profile by skirting the rules to construct a women's basketball powerhouse. But such is life these days, even in the supposedly placid realm of Division III athletics, which offers no athletic scholarships and is so viewed as the exemplar of what college sports can be that major conference commissioners have been known to utilize its very existence as a bargaining chip. According an April investigation by Jake New, of the website Inside Higher Ed, Division III had 13 major violations involving financial aid between 1953 and 2006; in the past ten years, there have been more than two dozen cases, at schools like the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Emory and Henry College, Denison University, and the University of Wisconsin at Superior.

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Not all of these tales are as seemingly craven as that at Baruch, which awarded more than $250,000 in impermissible financial aid to athletes over five years, according to the NCAA's infractions committee. The college was given four years probation last week (both the school's former vice-president, who claims the violations were inadvertent because he did not receive education on NCAA rules, and Baruch's women's basketball coach were also hit with one-year show-cause orders). Some of these cases appear to be based on simple misunderstandings of the financial aid rules, which allow schools to consider athletics when deciding admissions but don't allow them to do so when packaging financial aid. But it's also becoming increasingly clear that the so-called "bedrock principle" of Division III—no athletic scholarships—is being challenged by a small number of schools that appear more interested in winning than they ever have before: While a 2008 NCAA survey found that 30 percent of Division III agreed with the notion that "participation in national championships" was the "ultimate measure of success in an athletics program," more than half agreed with the statement in a 2013 survey.

"It's a lot more fun to win than it is to lose," Marc Nagel, a professor at the University of South Carolina and the associate director of the College Sport Research Institute, told VICE Sports. "Athletics is something that people will pay attention to. Sports cause people to change their priorities, even at a low-level school. A lot of administration and faculty and staff might be ambivalent about what's happening with the choir or the debate team, but you say a sports team is going to the championship, and they'll pay close attention."

The last place you'd expect to find a NCAA scandal. YouTube

This is an understandable predilection at the Division I or FBS level, especially within the revenue sports of football or men's basketball. The so-called "Flutie Effect"—the notion that athletics success can impact application numbers and raise the profile of an institution—is real and quantifiable. That seemingly wouldn't apply to Division III, particularly to a women's basketball team, and yet a press release issued by Baruch last year about the graduation of former women's basketball coach Machli Joseph from the NCAA's Pathways program noted that "school spirit was certainly a factor" in the record application increases from 19,000 to 24,000, and that overall enrollment grew from 16,000 to 17,000 "while the athletics program gained newfound regional and national notoriety." (The release has since been removed from the school's website.)

Maybe, Nagel says, some of this is a trickle-down effect. When Tommy Amaker became the basketball coach at Harvard, there were rumblings throughout the Ivy League that Harvard was willing to lower its admissions standards to aid the program; in recent years, a number of Patriot League institutions that didn't previously offer athletic scholarships have begun to do so in order to compete. In Division III, the NCAA's largest division, different schools have begun to embrace different priorities. Some, Nagel says, may hire full-time coaches and build up recruiting budgets; others have no interest in emphasizing athletics at all. Couple that with the fact that NCAA barely has the enforcement capacity to keep up with violations at the Division I level, let alone D-III, and you have ample room for schools to get away with bending the rules, unless someone with direct knowledge manages to blow the whistle (the Baruch investigation was launched by a pair of anonymous letters sent to the university in 2013).

"We're certainly concerned with an increase (in violations)," Gerald Houlihan, a member of the Division III committee on infractions, said during a recent teleconference. "Hopefully the recent spurt of decisions will go toward eliminating future violations."

But maybe it won't, and maybe the only way for the NCAA to keep up with this new reality is to acknowledge it. In the same way the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama-Birmingham are both technically FBS football programs, Nagel says, not all Division III schools are built alike, and there is some discussion that perhaps Division III might need to be cleaved in half in the way Power Five conference schools are increasingly distancing themselves from the Group of Five schools in college football. This still seems unlikely, given that a minority of D-III schools view athletics as a pathway to national prominence, but such is the pressure that has been built up from the top of college sports, and that has seemingly filtered all the way down to small schools you might have otherwise never known existed.

The environment "was all about athletes," an assistant in the Baruch admissions office told the NCAA. "They'(d) become the priority."

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