Princeton NCAA violation arises from alumnus' aid to family friend

Princeton University officials had mixed reactions to a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ruling on Sept. 8 of a "major violation" in the case of an alumnus who helped pay the educational expenses of a family friend on the women's tennis team.

The officials expressed appreciation for the NCAA's recognition of the limited nature of the case and the University's efforts to uncover and report the violation, which resulted in only minimal penalties. But the University believes that because of the isolated and inadvertent nature of the infraction, it should have been considered a secondary rather than a major violation.

The case involved an alumnus who -- without the knowledge of the Department of Athletics, the tennis team or its coaches -- contributed a total of approximately $33,000 toward the educational expenses of a student during the 2007-08 academic year and the 2008 fall semester. The alumnus made payments supporting tuition, room and board directly to the University's Student Accounts Office.

The alumnus immediately self-reported the contributions to Princeton's Department of Athletics in September 2008 after receiving a standard e-mail notification sent to all alumni supporters of athletics as part of a proactive rules-compliance initiative. The University -- via the athletics department -- promptly notified the Ivy League and conducted an internal investigation.

Although the alumnus' contributions in support of the student's educational expenses violated NCAA rules, the University and the Ivy League office concluded that this violation was isolated and inadvertent and did not provide the tennis team with a recruiting or other competitive advantage, and that the alumnus had no intention of providing the team with any such advantage.

For several years, the alumnus had a family-like relationship with the student, who applied and was accepted to Princeton before she was aware that the alumnus was willing to assist with her educational expenses. The alumnus offered to help because the student's parents expressed an unwillingness to pay for the portion of her educational expenses not covered by a substantial award from the University's need-based, no-loan financial aid program.

"We looked closely at the circumstances surrounding this isolated and inadvertent infraction and at the relationship between the alumnus and the student's family, and we are convinced that even though the alumnus is a long-time supporter of tennis at Princeton, he was acting only with the interest of helping a family friend pursue an educational opportunity for which her parents were not willing to provide financial support," Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman said. "We do not believe that this should have been characterized as a major violation, but we certainly regret the infraction and remain firmly committed to complying with all NCAA rules."

The dollar amount of the alumnus' support was a significant factor in the NCAA ruling that the infraction was a major, rather than secondary violation. However, the amount simply reflected the expected family contribution after accounting for the University's sizeable financial aid award, Tilghman said.

Robin Harris, the executive director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents, which is the governing council of the Ivy League athletic conference, said that, based on the facts of the case, "the Ivy League does not anticipate conducting any further investigation or imposing any sanctions" beyond those announced by the NCAA.

"During the review of this violation, the University and Ivy League concluded that although the alumnus' contributions in support of the student-athlete's educational expenses violated NCAA rules, the violation was isolated and inadvertent, it did not provide the tennis team with a recruiting advantage, and the alumnus had no intention of providing the team with an advantage," Harris said.

While the alumnus was a supporter of Princeton tennis, he was not acting on behalf of the tennis team or the athletics department. He met the student and her family four years before she decided to apply to Princeton. He never recruited student-athletes for Princeton and never attended a Princeton women's tennis match before the student's enrollment. He said he regarded the student as a surrogate daughter in need of financial assistance so that she could pursue an exceptional educational opportunity.

As a family friend, the alumnus had financially supported the student in other ways over the years, and he told NCAA enforcement staff that he would have paid for her to attend any college of her choice.

In a preliminary ruling affirming the University's position, the NCAA Academic and Membership Affairs Group concluded that "the nature and context of the relationship between [the alumnus] and [the student] do not indicate a motivation or desire to recruit on behalf of or for the institution. … Therefore, the promise of assistance with educational expenses does not constitute an offer or inducement to attend the institution."

In addition to education efforts that include an annual meeting, maintaining a website with compliance information, and publishing notices in newsletters and the alumni magazine, Princeton in 2008 established a policy of reminding athletic supporters of NCAA rules on three occasions each year. The alumnus paid the family contribution toward the student's educational costs for three semesters until he received such a notice from Princeton. When he received the notification, he did not hesitate to contact Princeton's athletics department to inform the University of his contributions to the student's education, which he had made to the Student Accounts Office in his own name with no attempt at concealment.

When contacted by the alumnus, Princeton reported the infraction to the NCAA and the Ivy League, conducted an internal investigation, and took corrective action. Under the direction of the NCAA, the student was required to establish a payment plan to donate to charity the full amount that the alumnus had contributed toward her education. She has remained a student at Princeton, has been reinstated on the women's tennis team, and her family is now paying her educational costs that are not covered by financial aid.

The NCAA's ruling acknowledged the isolated nature of the infraction in imposing minimal penalties. In addition to citing the violation, the NCAA required that the individual records for the matches in which the student competed during the 2007-08 academic year and the fall semester of the 2008-09 academic year -- when her educational costs were being supported by the alumnus -- will be vacated.

"The committee applauds Princeton's compliance education program, which directly led to the discovery of the violation," the NCAA Committee on Infractions stated in its public report, adding also that "because of the limited nature of this case, combined with the institution's efforts in uncovering and reporting the violation, the committee is imposing only minimal penalties. In fact, the committee decided not to impose a period of probation, a measure rarely taken in major infractions cases."