- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

University of the District of Columbia President William L. Pollard yesterday announced the cancellation of the men’s and women’s basketball seasons, citing misconduct in recruitment, financial aid and academic eligibility of players.

“This is a painful decision to make in the life of the university,” Mr. Pollard said. “We do not make this decision lightly, but this is the right thing to do.”

School officials said they were unsure if the UDC Firebirds would have a season next year, adding that this year’s season for the university’s tennis team may be canceled because of ineligible players.

UDC’s athletics department has been in flux since it became apparent the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) likely would penalize the school’s Division II sports program for violating rules governing student eligibility.

The Washington Times first reported last November that the NCAA was investigating improprieties in the land-grant university’s athletics department, including the use of academically ineligible students on UDC teams, misuse of financial-aid funds and mismanagement of proceeds from ticket and concessions sales at Firebirds’ games.

The men’s basketball team, which has an average home-game attendance of 300, finished the 2002-03 season with a record of 18-9. The record secured the Firebirds a berth in the NCAA Division II East Regional Tournament.

The women’s basketball team finished last season with a 13-14 record, with an average home-game attendance of 150.

Last year, the NCAA penalized the school for using ineligible players on the men’s soccer and basketball teams. The university had to forfeit nearly every men’s soccer game played last season, including the team’s appearance in the NCAA Division II tournament.

School officials yesterday said the NCAA may delay action against UDC because of the university’s ongoing internal investigation and the corrective measures being taken.

In September, Mr. Pollard forced athletic director Michael A. McLeese to resign because of his department’s misuse of funds and violations of NCAA rules. Mr. McLeese remained the men’s basketball coach, with his annual salary reduced from $89,226 to $72,425.

Yesterday, the school president said Mr. McLeese had been placed on paid administrative leave.

“We will not tolerate breaking rules,” Mr. Pollard said at a press conference in the lobby of the UDC gymnasium building.

Mr. Pollard was first advised of improprieties in the athletic department when he took over UDC in July 2002, and some faculty leaders have complained that he was slow to take action.

However, Mr. Pollard’s critics yesterday reserved comment about the actions he has taken.

Questions at the press conference about the timeliness of Mr. Pollard’s response to the situation were directed to Robert L. Clayton, a lawyer hired by the school in March to investigate NCAA violations.

“We’ve gone about this not in a cursory way, but in an in-depth way,” said Mr. Clayton, of the D.C. law firm Epstein, Becker & Green.

He said the internal investigation strove to give players and coaches a “full opportunity” to address concerns.

The athletic department’s problems add to a series of hardships at UDC, which has a history of financial mismanagement, poor academic performance and accreditation concerns.

The loss of the basketball season left student athletes and sports fans reeling.

Firebirds’ star shooting guard Rasheim Wright, a 23-year-old senior who was scouted by the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz, said he was looking to transfer to another university.

“I’m mad because last year I finished second in the country in scoring and I’m not going to have the chance to show what I can do this year — my last year,” said Mr. Wright, who was one of the academically ineligible players on the team.

Students throughout the campus were upset about the canceled basketball season, said a 21-year-old freshman psychology major who declined to give her name. “I was planning to go to the games,” she said. “We need something to relieve out stress.”

Mr. Pollard said canceling the season would not affect players’ financial aid or scholarships.

“This is not about punishing students,” Mr. Pollard said. “It’s about upholding the standards that will attract students, both athlete and nonathlete, to the University of the District of Columbia.”

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