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Division II Column: Committee on Infractions Releases Decision in Cheyney University of Pennsylvania Case [Higher-Ed/College Athletics Best Practices Alert (First Quarter 2015)]

Author: Justin P. Sievert (Senior Counsel)

On August 21, 2014, the NCAA Division II Committee on Infractions (COI) released its report in the case involving Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. The COI found the institution lacked institutional control over its certification processes. Specifically, during the 2007-08 through 2010-11 academic years, the institution violated NCAA rules in the certification of initial, transfer and continuing eligibility involving all sports programs resulting in numerous student-athletes competing while ineligible. Additionally, the COI found the former athletics compliance officer failed to monitor the certification process when she failed to follow appropriate certification procedures.

Some examples of improper certification and impermissible participation found by the COI were as follows:

  • Competition during the initial year of enrollment without the institution completing the academic certification process through the Eligibility Center.
  • Competition while not enrolled in the minimum number of required credit hours.
  • Competition during year in residence after transferring to the institution.
  • Competition after fourth season of eligibility.
  • Competition despite failing to meet two-year college transfer rules.

The penalties, including those self-imposed by the institution, were:

  • Public reprimand and censure. [Note: This is a standard COI-imposed penalty.]
  • Five years of probation from August 21, 2014, through August 20, 2019. [Note: The institution proposed a two year probationary period, which the COI rejected. While an institution can propose a specified probationary period, the COI concluded a five year period was warranted because: (1) the institution was a repeat violator; and (2) the extended length will allow oversight while the institution revamps its athletics compliance program.]
  • Relinquished voting privileges in the NCAA for two years, beginning August 21, 2014. [Note: While not common, this penalty is available under repeat violator legislation.]
  • A postseason ban for all sports during the 2013-14 academic year (self-imposed by the university) [Note: While harsh, not surprising given the nature of the case.]
  • A vacation of all wins in which ineligible student-athletes competed during the 2007-08 through 2010-11 academic years. [Note: It is customary to vacate wins in which ineligible student-athletes participated.]
  • A five-year show-cause order for the former compliance director. [Note: The duration of the order was likely due to the failure of the compliance officer in meeting many basic requirements of Bylaw 14.]

Without going into depth regarding the details of the eligibility violations; there are three key factors institutions must consider when conducting any business that has rules-compliance indications: (1) ensure you have adequate rules-compliance systems in place; (2) ensure you are utilizing the rules-compliance systems to evaluate your athletics programs; and (3) ensure you are providing excellent rules-compliance education to all parties who interface with athletics (e.g., student-athletes, coaches, athletics staff, institutional staff members who interface with athletics, etc.). The components described above are especially important when dealing with fundamental rules-compliance obligations such as the eligibility certification of student-athletes. Based upon the three key factors, here are some best practices your institution should consider to help address the issues presented in this case:

Staff Development: It is essential all athletics staff members and institutional staff members who interface with athletics are properly educated regarding NCAA legislation. Outside of internal initiatives, there are numerous opportunities for staff members to receive quality education and training. First, the NCAA hosts two Regional Rules Seminars on an annual basis that provide a sound introduction to key components of NCAA legislation as well as discussion on newly adopted legislation. Additionally, the National Association for Athletics Compliance (NAAC) has begun to host panels at conventions specifically related to Division II legislation. NAAC panels provide great value as they focus on hot topics and include content geared more towards senior compliance professionals. Finally, numerous law firms and consulting groups produce quality content that is completely free. For example, Buckner archives its free resources on the firm’s website, which can be found at www.bucknersportslaw.com. Additionally, Buckner Small College and University practice group leader Justin Sievert maintains a blog devoted to NCAA Divisions II and III and NAIA institutions on www.smallcollegesolutions.com.

Written Policies and Procedures: How you handle rules-compliance should be a systematic approach based upon the policies and procedures detailed in your department’s athletics compliance manual. Having unwritten practices is a recipe for disaster should violations be found or staff turnover occur.

Community-Based Approach: The rules-compliance offices at the small college and university level are most commonly an office of one. This staff member often has additional responsibilities outside of athletics compliance that are also time-intensive. Therefore, it is important to utilize an athletics compliance committee to assist with athletics compliance oversight. This committee’s composition could include the director of athletics, the faculty athletics representative, the institution’s legal counsel and select senior institutional administrators.

Rules-Education Programming: Athletics compliance offices must provide regularly scheduled, mandatory rules-education training and materials to athletics department staff members, coaches, student-athletes and other institutional departments that interface with athletics (i.e., admissions, registrar and financial aid).

Audits (Internal and External): Athletics departments should conduct audits of their athletics compliance program on a regular basis. The audits should include a review of athletics compliance policies and procedures and rules-education programming to ensure monitoring systems are operating effectively, and that institutional staff members, coaches and student-athletes have a proper understanding of NCAA legislation. Further, athletics departments should retain an experienced firm to conduct an athletics compliance audit regularly (at least once every four years). External audits are important because they enhance the credibility of the audit (i.e., the auditor does not work for the institution), they may provide a more effective critique because they can observe operations from the outside and determine where inefficiencies may be occurring and they provide a check of the findings from the internal audit.

Contact Justin P. Sievert (954-941-1844; jsievert@bucknersportslaw.com) for more information pertaining to NCAA Division II rules-compliance strategies and the Division II enforcement process.