NCAA cites lack of institutional control in punishment of SFA athletic program

NCAA cites lack of institutional control in punishment of SFA athletic program
2016 SFA Basketball (Source: KTRE Sports)

Seven years of not keeping academic certification properly has landed the SFA athletic department in hot water.

Since 2013 the NCAA and SFA has learned that 82 student athletes from multiple sports competed when they should have been ruled ineligible. The error was first reported by SFA Athletic Director Ryan Ivey to the NCAA last spring when he first learned of the error that was started under the previous administration. It has been linked back to two employees: a former senior associate athletic director for compliance and former associate athletic director for academics. According to the NCAA report, The issues did not get brought forward until after Ryan Ivey was brought in during the summer of 2018. Ivey brought in new staff members and after reviewing records in spring of 2019 the issues started popping up.

“The university was found to lack institutional control because it did not adequately monitor and control the athletics eligibility certification process, failed to properly apply academic certification rules and did not involve staff members from outside of athletics in the certification process,” a press release from the NCAA stated. “The agreement also noted the university did not withhold ineligible student-athletes from competition and did not promptly detect and report the certification violations to the NCAA.”

All the details are explained in a 13 page document provided by the SFA Athletic Department.

“We knew if they found it before we did our penalties could be a lot more severe moving forward," Ivey said. “I’ll make that clear. I don’t think any coaches were involved especially from our end. This is something they are not involved in with the certification process. This does not fall or rest on our coaches.”

The department is being put on a three-year probation, given fines equally up to over $94,000, forced to vacate 289 wins from multiple sports and is being stripped of three conference basketball titles and a win in the 2016 NCAA National Tournament over West Virginia.

“It is not fair to our current student athletes or fair to our coaches but it is the reality to the situation and current system we are in," Ivey said.

The banners that SFA has hung proudly inside the Coliseum will be taken down and put into storage -- a symbolic message from the NCAA to the program.

“While those wins are vacated on paper they are not vacated in our hearts or memories," Ivey said. “People were there there. They saw it. They lived through it. I think we can take solace in knowing that.”

The Institution is now looking to fix their processes so this does not happen again.

“We have revamped our certification process,” Ivey said. “We have created new documents, new reporting procedures and included more people involved. We have gotten people outside the athletics department involved. We have the registrar’s office involved so they can track us. We are also in the process of hiring an athletics certification officer that will be housed outside of athletics to help us through this.”

Statement from Director of Athletics Ryan Ivey

This has certainly been a challenging time for all of us, and our thoughts continue to be with you and your families. Together, as a university community, a state, a nation and a world, we are confident that we will get through this and thrive once again.

Today, we write to you on a different matter, sharing difficult news regarding our athletics program, and we do so under the premise of our Athletics Department’s core values: Accountability, Excellence, Integrity, Innovative and Teamwork, as that it what you deserve. Today, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), publicly announced a Negotiated Resolution agreement with Stephen F. Austin regarding several NCAA rules infractions concerning student eligibility that occurred from 2013-2019.

Let us begin by sharing with you the origins of the matter.

In the Spring of 2019, a member of our athletics department discovered that the process by which our student-athletes were being certified as academically eligible was not properly accounting for all NCAA requirements. The primary issue was that former department personnel responsible for the certification process were incorrectly counting all semester credit hours to determine academic eligibility instead of counting only degree-applicable credits, as prescribed by NCAA rules. This error--and other similar errors-- resulted in 82 student-athletes being improperly certified for competition over a period of six years, from 2013 to 2019, meaning 82 student-athletes competed while ineligible for SFA in the sports of football, men’s basketball, baseball, volleyball, softball, women’s golf, men’s and women’s track & field and men’s cross country. The athletics department personnel responsible for the incorrect certifications are no longer a part of SFA Athletics.

After identifying these errors, the University immediately reviewed the academic standing of all current student-athletes and, when warranted, filed for and secured student-athlete reinstatement eligibility by the NCAA, clearing the students for competition.

Shortly after the discovery of the issue, the University retained outside legal counsel to work with the institution and the NCAA to determine the facts and scope of the potential violations. Once that review was completed, SFA and the NCAA staff came to an agreement on sanctions through a Negotiated Resolution. The NR is a process offered by the NCAA to resolve infractions cases when the facts are not in dispute, which is the case in our matter. This route saved the University time and financial resources, but most importantly, lessoned the risk of more severe penalties if the University had opted to proceed through the traditional infractions process.

Ultimately, the institution and the NCAA agreed that the improper certification of 82 student-athletes for competition was a Level I violation. The University also acknowledged that it failed to exercise institution control when it did not detect or remedy the errors in a timely manner, given that in 2014, the NCAA had warned the institution through a standard review of academic progress data to strengthen its academic certification processes and it failed to do so.

The Level I (Mitigated) sanctions agreed upon by the NCAA and Stephen F. Austin include the following:

  • Three years of probation;
  • Public reprimand and censure;
  • A fine of $5,000 plus one-half of one percent of the total budgets for football and men’s basketball;
  • The return of 50 percent of the University’s financial share earned from participation in the 2016 NCAA Tournament;
  • The forfeiture of all records and contests in which an ineligible SFA student-athlete competed, which includes 29 football victories from 2013-2019; 117 men’s basketball victories from 2014 to 2019; 112 baseball victories from 2015 to 2019; 31 softball victories from the 2018 season; and adjusted conference championship scores from women’s golf, women’s track and field, men’s cross country and men’s track and field.
  • Included in the vacation of wins are conference championships in men’s basketball in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2017-18, as well as the program’s First Round win in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The banners recognizing those achievements will be removed from William R. Johnson Coliseum.
  • A 2.5% reduction in financial aid awards (scholarships) in football for 2020-2021 and 2021-2022; a 5% reduction in baseball in either 2020-21 or 2021-2022 and the loss of one scholarship in men’s basketball in either 2020-2021 or 2021-22.
  • Prior to the conclusion of the probationary period, the institution will submit to a data review with APP staff.

Again, on advice of counsel and after deliberate internal discussions, agreeing to a Negotiated Resolution was the fastest way to put this behind us and ultimately, to reduce the risk of more severe penalties (i.e., postseason bans, recruiting restrictions) that would have severely set back certain sports programs.

Unfortunately, there are additional significant ramifications for some of our athletic programs related to the NCAA violations involving improper eligibility certification.

In 2003, the NCAA instituted the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which holds institutions accountable for the academic progress of its student-athletes through a team-based metric that accounts for the eligibility and retention of each student-athlete for each academic term. Student-athletes who are meeting requirements for academic progress towards a degree and remain at their original institution help bolster the APR score (out of 1000), while those who transfer out, fail to meet academic progress towards a degree or otherwise do not return to the institution decrease a team’s APR score. While there is an annual APR score for each team released publicly, the NCAA reviews four-year cohorts of APR scores to provide a more accurate picture of a team’s academic standing. If a team’s four-year APR falls below 930 in any given year, that program is banned from participating in postseason play the following season.

For the 82 SFA student-athletes discovered through the enforcement matter who were improperly certified as eligible, the information previously submitted for APR purposes required adjustment. After making changes to reflect the NCAA requirements for credits, the APR scores for three of our teams fell below the 930 threshold.

In conjunction with standard NCAA APR penalties, three of our teams that fell below the 930 threshold will serve their postseason penalties during the upcoming 2020-2021 or 2021-22 seasons, allowing our coaches and student-athletes to move forward as soon as possible. Therefore, the SFA football team is prohibited from participating in the 2020 postseason; the men’s basketball team will not participate in the postseason in 2021-22; and the baseball program will also be prohibited from participating in the postseason in the spring of 2021. The University will file a request for a conditional waiver to the NCAA for suspension of future years of postseason restrictions, as the APR score for some of our teams may remain below 930 in subsequent years due to the four-year rolling score. In similar cases, waivers have been granted based on signs of academic and APR improvement by the involved sports program.

We understand that the tremendous young men and women in our athletic programs are paying a steep price for the administrative mistakes by former staffers, but they will have our complete and unwavering support in the days and months ahead.

Our actions since the discovery of the improper certifications in 2019 demonstrate our unwavering commitment to integrity and fair play and our willingness to hold ourselves accountable for our actions. In fact, the NCAA enforcement staff and Committee on Infractions recognized this commitment in the Negotiated Resolution by crediting our “exemplary cooperation” in the investigation and citing SFA as a “model for other institutions” facing similar violations.

We are a stronger University today because of our actions and our values and we look forward to the next chapter of Lumberjack Athletics.

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