Judy Dixon is one of the faces of the program’s official appeal to the NCAA, and she knows how it feels to take on power. She says she was “young and naive and full of energy” in her first go-round as an agent for change, when as a 24-year-old she became the first plaintiff in a Title IX case; Dixon sued her then-employer Yale University until it provided the women’s tennis team with equal resources as the men.
That was 46 years ago, but Dixon, 71, hasn’t lost an ounce of energy. She has gained a whole lot of perspective, though, and with the same righteousness of that long-ago fight the retired UMass coach is fighting for change again.
“This is the way I felt at Yale,” Dixon said. “This kind of thing cannot continue and if someone doesn’t speak up it will continue. As long as the Power Five schools do what they do and the NCAA turns a different face to them than it does to programs like the one we had at UMass, it will continue.”
She is far from alone, and this time, she is flanked by 25-year-old Brittany Collens, whose creation of an online petition is one of the many ways this story has expanded from the pages of The Globe to those of the UK’s Guardian.
Their headline demand is obvious: The NCAA must reverse its ridiculous punishment for the $252, self-reported error UMass made by reimbursing two former players for a phone jack they didn’t use, and restore the championship and three years of wins the program was forced to vacate. But that is only a start. This is about fairness, about equal treatment, about common sense, and doing what’s right.
Reactions over the past week make it clear the voices at UMass are being heard, at least in the court of public opinion. From influential ESPN commentators such as Jay Bilas or Dick Vitale, whose indefatigable enthusiasm for college sports is unmatched, to lawyer Greg Tarone, who is fighting for athletes rights vis a vis the NCAA’s draconian power, to a Reddit stream of conversation that surpassed 1,500 comments to the office of Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, the verdict is unanimous.
“Everyone is on the same page — the NCAA needs change,” said Collens, one of the two players who received the extra money, though she had zero knowledge of it until the NCAA’s ruling. “It needs to reform. Student-athletes are not the best interest of the NCAA right now, and that’s been apparent for so many examples.”
Vitale has kept his 880,000-plus Twitter followers informed of his outrage, which he shared in a phone call this week.
“Use my voice, tell them it’s criminal, insane, ludicrous,” Vitale said. “It’s unfair and terrible what they did to those kids. We’ve got people out there cheating big-time, schools, coaches on tape talking about buying ballplayers and it takes years and years to penalize them. And here you’ve got Mickey Mouse stuff and it’s a joke. When I read the article, where UMass admitted its mistake, and the NCAA knew there was no intent involved to cheat, it’s criminal.”
He left me with this: “I would not let that rest.”
And so we won’t. Collens, who learned of the decision by reading about herself in a news story, is meeting with Murphy’s office Thursday. That support could be a game-changer. Her petition is approaching 5,000 signatures, and while those won’t play any role in the official appeal, they are important in reflecting public disgust for a team so clearly wronged by an honest mistake.
If you wonder whether the NCAA exists to protect students or the millionaires who profit off off college sports, read this article. It’s bananas. The NCAA ruined these students athletic careers over a $252 clerical error. https://t.co/ogDhB1BDZ4
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) October 24, 2020
To wit: Dixon has been in contact with the Women’s Sports Foundation. Collens is meeting with the national Student Athlete Advisory Committee. UMass AD Ryan Bamford doesn’t go a day without multiple texts and emails of support. Their phones don’t stop — Dixon from tennis colleagues all over the country, Collens from media outlets from Sports Illustrated to local radio. The outrage shared by A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade, who called the decision “overly harsh and a disservice to the student-athletes and coaches,” is being echoed everywhere.
On Tuesday, it was CEO Timothy Russell of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, the governing body of college tennis, who wrote, “the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions should do the right thing by reconsidering their overly harsh original decision and granting the appeal . . . Such a decision will show leadership and serve our sport, the student-athletes, and common sense.”
Or this from the attorney Tarone, who represents and advocates for athletes, and participated in Harvard’s recent annual sports law symposium, held virtually: “That the Committee on Infractions had to draw blood for such minor and non-mal-intent errors is incredulous, disgraceful to American athletics across the board, and blatant abuse of that Committee’s discretion on its face.”
Dixon isn’t having it. When her 25-year run at UMass tennis ended so perfectly, her riding into the sunset on the wings of such an unexpected championship, she never expected to have it turn into this, being pulled back into the fray over a $9,000 mistake, much of which can be attributed to the men’s basketball team.
“That’s where I am,” she said. “I did ask Ryan [Bamford, the AD], ‘for a mid-major school that spent $100,000 for a $9,000 clerical error, that is now in middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is going to spend a huge amount more to appeal this ridiculous decision, is there some recourse for the university to recoup some of its loss vis a vis the amount of money spent?’ He said no, we can’t do that. When we agree to abide by NCAA rules as a university, we agree to all of this. I said, ‘There’s no way to go after the NCAA?’ He said no.
“So in my mind, I’m thinking could I find someone willing to do some pro bono work, that’s what my lawyer did for Yale, be willing to take this on an issue. I would be willing to be that person, be that face and that voice.”
She’s been there before. The NCAA should consider itself warned.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.