The NCAA Erased My Career

Rebecca Estrella/The Players' Tribune

“The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.”

That’s how the NCAA defines itself to the world.

If you wipe your mind of all you know about how the NCAA really operates, that statement might seem accurate.

But the truth?

The real truth?

That statement … it’s just a flat-out lie.

I played Division I tennis at the University of Massachusetts from 2014 through 2017. And even before I got to Amherst — from the time I was a junior in high school — I had been aware of the NCAA’s rules and regulations. I did not speak to a college coach before I was eligible to be recruited. I didn’t try to get any sort of recruitment advantages nothing like that. If you played sports in college, you know the years of tip-toeing that go on to make sure that nothing happens that could put you, or the program, in a bad light.

Time and time again, we read about schools that have violated NCAA protocols. When I was at UMass, I’d see those stories and assume that the programs, coaches or players who'd broken the rules — broken the NCAA's pact of amateurism — had done so because they had bad intentions. I mean, when the NCAA punishes programs and individuals, that’s how they frame their statements. And for a long, long time, I never questioned that.

I never thought, What if we’re not getting the full story there?

In October 2020, three years after I’d graduated from UMass, that all changed.

I had been playing professional tennis for three years. One day, I was driving home from practice when my phone lit up with a text from my coach. It was a press release from the NCAA with the headline, UMASS GAVE $9,100 IN INCREMENTAL BENEFITS TO COLLEGE ATHLETES.

After I got home, I sent a text back like, “Oh, no! Not UMass…..”

And then my phone started blowing up.

“Britt, didn’t you play on that team?”

“Did you see the news?”

“What happened??”

I thought the article was about some recent infraction by one of the basketball teams or another large program. But after I clicked on the link I found myself suddenly reading about me and my teammates — about how we’d received funds that aided our athletic accomplishments. 

I was just … shocked.

According to the investigation, my teammate and I had unknowingly received $252 each in extra scholarship money intended for a landline phone jack. 

Think about that for a second. A phone jack

When my teammate and I lived on campus, our scholarships had included basic provisions, among them access to a landline. So that’s all that $252 was for. But in my junior year, when we moved off campus, the money for the phone jack remained in our scholarships. It was an accounting error by the school. A simple mistake. When UMass discovered the error, the school self-reported, but the NCAA determined that $504 had given our tennis program a competitive advantage.

So with a snap of its fingers, the NCAA wiped my career and my teammate’s from the record books. Dozens of my wins were erased. My other teammates hadn’t even done anything wrong, but team records were just deleted. My infractions, and those of my teammate, amounted to just a small portion of the $9,100 that had gotten the NCAA so upset (the bulk of which had been for financial aid improperly given to the men's basketball team). But it still stripped the women’s tennis team of wins — and even of our 2017 Atlantic 10 conference title. 

All for an unintentional clerical error.

The harsh penalty isn’t even the most upsetting part. It’s the why behind the decision that I simply cannot wrap my brain around. 

The why is my motivation for writing this. 

College sports are a multibillion-dollar industry. And that is the determining factor in nearly every decision the NCAA makes. While schools generate millions in revenues year after year, and coaches have become the highest paid public employees in 40 states the athletes have been forgotten. 

Who was the NCAA protecting by punishing our program, our school, for a $504 error?

Was it other athletes?

No.

The NCAA was protecting itself, keeping schools in fear under the guise of protecting, as they like to call it, “a revered tradition of amateurism.”

This tradition is preserved so that the NCAA can keep making money while denying its athletes basic rights. NCAA schools treat athletes like employees. They dictate schedules, impose time demands, enforce rules, and return athletes to play in the middle of a global pandemic. And they expect the athletes, the young kids, to follow these rules to the letter. Because that concept … that’s what keeps the lights on at the NCAA.

They say it’s not an actual job because athletes earn a scholarship. They’re right, it’s not a job. A job would provide fair pay and equitable benefits for all employees. 

And look, I understand that college sports provide valuable opportunities. They absolutely do, 100%. But those opportunities don’t have to come at the cost of basic rights, education, and health and safety. The NCAA takes credit for its athletes’ successes, but really, the athletes succeed in spite of the system. They succeed despite the fact that many of them live in poverty and suffer from mental-health issues. They succeed even though the NCAA denies them the ability to profit from the use of their own names and likenesses and tolerates huge graduation gaps between white and Black athletes.

Our program’s infraction was one of those that seem to happen every year when a school makes a marginal mistake and then the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. The NCAA controls the narrative of enforcement through their press releases. UMass spent over $100,000 on legal fees to deal with the matter, and I’m sure the NCAA also spent quite a bit for its trouble. But that outlay that effort and energy just doesn’t seem to be there in a lot of cases where the well-being of college athletes is concerned.

Just ask Sedona Prince about her medical care when she was playing basketball at Texas, and the thousands in bills that she had to pay. How about Jordan McNair at Maryland, who died 15 days after he’d been kept on the field during spring practice despite showing signs of heat stroke? Or Hayley Hodson, a volleyball player from Stanford who was on track to become one of the best in the world?

Want to know what her exit from college sports was like? 

Post-concussion syndrome. A lawsuit against the NCAA and Stanford. And the inability to ever play her sport again. She says that she was put in dangerous situations by her coach, and that when she suffered a serious head injury, she was denied proper medical treatment.

While the NCAA may not be directly at fault in any of those incidents, the culture it has created around college athletics where teams are focused on winning and making money —  can lead to programs pushing players too hard. The NCAA’s own interests are tied more to those concerns and preserving power than they are to the athletes’ development as players, and as people. 

And those athletes and their stories they aren’t unique. 

I have heard stories from college athletes across the country in abusive situations. Coaches are controlling their weight, shaming them in front of teammates, violating limits on practice time and using workouts as punishment. But athletes are afraid to speak up because there’s just no way for them to get the help they need. If an athlete faces a sexually, physically or mentally abusive situation they can either endure it, quit or attempt to report it. 

If they do report it, they have to go through an NCAA rep. From the outside that might make sense. The NCAA does oversee college sports. But from my experience, and from what I’ve heard from others, going to an NCAA rep is a good way to get your grievance completely ignored. They don’t want to shine a negative light on their own product. There is no independent counsel, someone with no ties to either the school or the NCAA. And to me, that’s completely wrong. 

It’s no wonder so many athletes stay quiet. 

To see all these things happening: The mistreatment of college athletes, and as well as the inequitable treatment of female athletes look no further than the weight rooms at the March Madness tournaments. I’ve come to the realization that the NCAA has no moral compass. That’s the truth. The only compass they have points right to the money. 

Our team that won the 2017 Atlantic 10 title was filled with girls from all over the world. We had players from Spain, India, Serbia and Ghana. All of them had come to UMass to get an education, and to leave a legacy. But because $252 extra dollars went into my bank account by mistake, that’s all gone. To me, that sums up what the NCAA is really about. That’s what they should put on their website.

To the people who don’t understand how college athletes are mistreated: It’s O.K. I didn’t either. I was — and still am — grateful for my scholarship. But what I saw, and what I’ve come to see, has shown me what I believe to be the true side of college athletics. And one we desperately need to fix. 

I encourage anyone who is skeptical to speak to the families of athletes who have died during workouts. Speak to the survivors of sexual or physical abuse. My team’s case is in no way comparable, but it does demonstrate that all athletes can be controlled by the NCAA even after graduating. It demonstrates that the deal an athlete is given is not a fair one.

And it demonstrates that the NCAA can no longer be trusted to do what is right. 

Other athletes have recognized this, too, which is why #NotNCAAProperty has been trending on Twitter. Isaiah Livers, Jordan Bohannon, and Geo Baker, are leading the movement, asking the NCAA to allow athletes to profit from their own names, images and likenesses. 

To me, the debate over name, image and likeness (NIL) is crucially important for college athletes. 

NIL would allow them to use their own social platforms as a source of income, as well as to do something as simple as give lessons in their sports during off-seasons. It’s a first step toward making a difference in the lives of college athletes. NIL is the battleground right now. 

Bills have been proposed in 30 states to address the NCAA’s long-standing denial of athletes’ rights to use their own NIL. Congress has also introduced federal legislation, including the College Athlete Bill of Rights and the College Athlete Economic Freedom Act. Critically, the bills address topics of health and safety, scholarship protections and graduation. 

In March, the Supreme Court began addressing NCAA v. Alston, a case that will determine whether the NCAA can cap educational benefits that college sports programs may provide to their athletes. 

In the initial hearings, Justice Coney Barett asked what I thought was a brilliant question: “Why does the NCAA get to define what pay is?”

Preach.

The NCAA will surely spend millions of dollars in legal fees to fight this to the very death — because its dated definition of amateurism is its meal ticket. And it will do whatever it takes to protect it.

These athletes, the ones fighting and risking their futures for those who will follow in their footsteps they don’t want to ruin college sports for you and your buddies. They really don’t. They just want to have their basic rights protected. They just want to be safe. They just want to feel like they’re getting back what they put into their sports. 

That’s it. 

I’m now three years removed from school, playing professional tennis. My legacy at UMass may have been erased, but I hope to create a new one. One that, I hope, will live on forever. I’m a former college athlete who benefited from — and then was punished by — a flawed system. It fails too many young, talented athletes in our country. And it has to change. There is just too much at stake.

So I’m asking you, the fans,  to stand up for the athletes who need you the most right now.

Britt

Here’s how you can help:

https://www.change.org/UMTennisPetition

https://pwrfwd.co/brittany-collens

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