New steps in place to prevent a repeat
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
The new process includes independent confirmation from any team an athlete might have played with before entering UH that the athlete did not play with professionals on the team, and that the team itself is not professional in nature. Such confirmation, UH associate general counsel Jan Gouveia said, will prevent a repeat of yesterday's NCAA ruling that stripped UH of its men's volleyball championship.
The action followed a UH investigation confirming that a player identified by The Honolulu Advertiser as Costas Theocharidis was a member of a professional team in Greece before enrolling at UH in 1999.
According to the university, Theocharidis did not sign a contract, retain an agent or get paid by the team, the three previously accepted standards that would make a player ineligible. But under newly clarified NCAA guidelines, his participation on a team that included professional players or that considered itself professional was enough to make him ineligible to compete for an NCAA Division I team.
According to Gouveia, "the athlete was not fully forthcoming" about his amateur status during an eligibility review. "That was a mistake on his part."
The department's new guidelines, while still dependent on self-reporting from the athletes, allow for more authoritative confirmation of the status of their former teams.
"It's not easy to get those confirmations," Gouveia said. "There are language differences, time differences, cultural barriers. Some teams don't want to share information about their program. But we do it because we have to be sure."
Gouveia emphasizes that, at the time Theocharidis was admitted to the university, administrators could not have anticipated that the NCAA would choose to enforce the rule under the current interpretation.
The NCAA apparently agreed. It ruled UH's infraction a secondary violation, reasoning that the university could not have assumed its interpretation of the amateurism provision at the time of the violation, Gouveia said. Had it been ruled a primary violation, the penalty could have been more severe.
Still, that's little consolation to the team and the UH athletic department.
"As it is, the punishment is about the maximum you can get for a secondary violation," said Gouveia. "That's what's rubbing everyone the wrong way. I think our appeal will focus on the fairness of the sentencing."
UH officials said they are particularly disappointed in the severity of NCAA's ruling given the measures they've undertaken during the past two years to ensure compliance with the association's amateurism requirements.
As one of the nation's most active recruiters of international student athletes, UH has become something of a laboratory for the NCAA's evolving application of amateurism rules over the past few years.
Yesterday's ruling was the latest and most stinging penalty levied against UH for a string of violations related to amateurism and international athletes.
Three years ago, the NCAA suspended UH freshman Haim Shimonovich for participating in an Israeli basketball league that included foreign players. In accordance with the association's former game-for-game penalty standard, Shimonovich was forced to sit for the first 22 games of the 2000-2001 season, equivalent to the number of league games.
"The NCAA didn't really have rules for this sort of thing," said UH basketball coach Riley Wallace. "They didn't know Europe. They didn't know the leagues, the structure. Since then, they've gone there and seen for themselves, and they've worked on finding a set of rules that help ensure a level playing field. It's an ongoing thing."
Wallace has come to rely on international recruiting to compensate for UH's geographic disadvantage in the recruiting game.
"Kids from Europe are less afraid of coming all the way to Hawai'i than a kid in the Midwest might be," he said.
And for all the headaches that have come with the NCAA's interest in the matter, Wallace said the gains have been worth it.
"By recruiting the world rather than just the country, you have that much more opportunity to attract a high-caliber student athlete," he said. "Since I've been recruiting Europe, we've won two WAC championships and been to two NCAA tournaments and an NIT in three years."
In fact, international players have competed on the NCAA Division I level for decades without attracting any special attention. But in recent years, questions about their competitive backgrounds and the perception that recruitment of foreign athletes deprives U.S.-bred talent of college opportunities have led to calls for increased scrutiny from the NCAA.
"The issue of amateurism had been dormant for quite a while and it was the understanding of coaches, recruiters and institutions that as long as the international athlete wasn't paid, did not sign a contract and did not have an agent, they were eligible," Gouveia said. "But then two years ago it became apparent that they were going to interpret playing on a team with professionals or playing for a team that considered itself professional to be a violation."
In response, athletic department staff in charge of compliance issues met with the university's 70 international student athletes, explained the rule and the way it was being interpreted and asked for reconfirmation from the athletes about their status. Individual coaches held follow-up meetings with their teams.
The process turned up two volleyball players with potential eligibility problems. Jose Delgado's status was investigated and cleared. Pedro Azenha was suspended for four matches after it was learned he had played in a tournament in Brazil that included professional players.
"At that point, we felt pretty good that we were going beyond the call of duty to make sure we were OK," Gouveia said. "We took it very seriously."
Last August, the NCAA issued a clarification of its rule of international student athletes playing with professionals or on professional teams. The clarification closed a loophole allowing students who didn't know about the teams' professional status to get by.
UH now uses a new form provided by the NCAA that specifically asks athletes about their experience with professionals and professional teams. Gouveia said the university will not work with international students on visa applications or enrollment until they have received written assurances from their former teams regarding their eligibility.
Reach Michael Tsai at 535-2461 or email@example.com.