Hey everyone, welcome to the fifth episode of Major – Stories of NCAA Scandals. In this show we will be covering the most gripping, gruesome, and groundbreaking scandals in the history of the NCAA. My name is Chris Brown and I’ll be your host, guiding you through every twist and turn these stories have to offer.
For the last nine years, I’ve worked in NCAA Rules and Regulations, including four years on the NCAA staff.
If you are anything like me, you love a good sports scandal. I started Major, as a way of exploring both well-known and unknown NCAA scandals. But enough about me, let’s start the show.
While not unknown, today’s case isn’t really well known either. That’s because today’s case involves the mysterious world of Division III.
On March 18, 2005, Neal Hart, head men’s and women’s tennis coach of MacMurray College was forced to appear before the NCAA Division III Committee on Infractions to address allegations of NCAA violations.
Was Neal Hart, a ruthless coach seeking to win at any cost or just a naive college professor who got caught up in a crime he didn’t know he was committing?
On this episode of Major Stories of NCAA Scandals, we dive into the MacMurray College tennis scandal.
Neal Hart grew up in the small village of Arenzville, Iillinois, where his father, A.C. Hart served as President of First National Bank in 1929. Growing up, Hart had dreams of leaving Illinois and exploring the world.
After Hart graduated from Illinois College with a degree in math education, he did just that. Hart picked up and left home traveling out to Kenya to begin his teaching career. Following time in Kenya, Hart would go on to teach in Botswana, Liberia, Egypt, Antigua and estimates he travelled up to different 90 countries.
Following his world travels, Hart returned to the US working briefly at Sam Houston State University as both an instructor and international advisor. In 1999, Hart and his wife Dianne, decided to return back to Illinois to help support his ailing parents. He quickly secured at MacMurrary College serving as both a mathematics professor and tennis coach.
Now MacMurray at this time is not an athletics juggernaut. When Hart took one the role, he knew it would be difficult to recruit top talent. That’s why when a colleague invited him to a match to view two Argentinian players during the summer of 2000, Hart had some reservations. While he wanted to go and watch the match, he knew that he had no means of recruiting top talent to MacMurray.
Even recognizing an uphill battle, Hart attended the match and was impressed by what he saw. Hart even went as far as to have the two recruits come for a visit to campus prior to returning to Argentina
Later that summer, Hart received an email from one of the recruits, seeking assistance to come to the U.S and play at a university. The recruit claimed that both he and the other recruit had been swindled by the promotor of the tennis tournament they had attended earlier in the summer.
It’s worth noting, that while we were unable verify if these particular recruits were swindled by promoters, these stories are really commonplace. Opportunities to come to the United States and earn an education while playing at a college are highly coveted by international athletes. Many recruiting and scouting services take advantage of international athletes by promising them exposure to college coaches. Recruits pay a handsome sum of money, often times thousands of dollars and in return, they get nothing.
Knowing that both recruits intended to play tennis in college, Hart decided that the two deserved an opportunity to receive financial assistance to earn an education. Perhaps thinking of them as more of “students” rather than “athletes”.
Now before we go any further, we need to discuss NCAA Division III. Let’s go all the way back to 1973, when Richard Nixon was President and Marvin Gaye dropped his hit song “Let’s get it on.”
Every year in January, the NCAA has a convention to discuss the state of college athletics and vote on potential changes to its rules. However, in special and emergency circumstances, the NCAA can convene what’s called a Special Convention.
In 1973, the NCAA held its first ever special convention. So what was the pressing matter? While I could paint you a picture of an everchanging higher education landscape with sports at the forefront of this landscape, let’s skip to the crux of the issue…money.
At the time NCAA members were spending varying amounts of money on their athletics programs. However, the revenue distribution model was such, that smaller schools spending less on athletics, were still able to reap substantial benefits. Of particular interest was the revenue being generated through football television rights. When the NCAA first began broadcasting football, all contracts were between the NCAA organization and the broadcasting companies. Now while this may sound radical living in a world where conferences and individual schools have their own networks, this was actually the norm all the way up until the 1980s.
As is a trend in college athletics history, when the larger schools don’t feel they’re getting their fair share of money, drastic changes have to happen. So the NCAA came together and reorganized its membership into three distinct differences. While this did not create the harmony that everyone was hoping, it did establish a Division for colleges who did not want to provide scholarships for athletics participation.
This concept of no athletics aid would become the hallmark of Division III and is a rule that is still in place today. While it may be worth exploring the nuances of Division III legislation in the future, for today, just remember: You cannot provide a scholarship in anyway based on athletics in Division III.
Alright, now, back to the story.
Recognizing a mutually beneficial opportunity, Hart came up with what he characterized as a "scheme" to provide the Argentinian recruits with scholarships and appease the NCAA, the institution and the IRS.
He approached his father, who was nearly 100 years old at the time, and asked him to establish a scholarship for international students. Once the father agreed, Hart met with MacMurray’s vice-president for enrollment management and the vice-president for finance at the institution; together they set up the family's Scholarship for International Students.
While normally scholarships have specific criteria and requirements for applicants to meet, not the Argentine-Kenyan Scholarship. Yes, that is the real name of the scholarship. Can’t make this stuff up. The Argentine-Kenyan Scholarship had no requirements. Hart would simply select the recipients and award money as needed. Unsurprisingly, the first two recipients of the scholarship, were the two Argentinian tennis recruits Hart had previously corresponded with. During the 2000-01 academic year, each athlete received approximately $5,000 per semester and competed as members of the men's tennis team.
The next academic year, $16,720.70 and was provided to three different athletes hand selected by Hart. The amounts would only escalate from there.
The next year, the total amount of financial aid awarded from the scholarship account was $55,405.
During the 2003-04 academic year, the family would take a slight step back, awarding only the total amount of financial aid awarded from the scholarship account was $36,647 and was provided to six student-athletes.
Now, let’s pause for a second. Thus far, over $118,000 worth of impermissible scholarships have been awarded, but we’re not done.
Hart’s philanthropic efforts did not go unnoticed. He received messages and calls from many recruits. In one instance, Hart received a call from an international student located outside of Kenya and Argentina. Since the young man did not meet the sole criteria for the scholarship, Hart simply asked his father to write a check to help the student.
In total, Hart distributed $162,027.86 to ten different athletes over the course of ten years.
Once discovered, the institution received a visit from NCAA Enforcement Investigators. After a review of all the information, the school went before the NCAA Committee on Infractions on March 18, 2005. For those of you just tuning in, the Committee on Infractions decides the outcome of enforcement cases. Made up of athletics directors, compliance administrators, conference commissioners etc., the Committee on Infractions is the jury of your peers in an NCAA enforcement case.
On the day of the hearing, Coach Hart, did not prepare remarks…a very bad idea. Coach Hart insisted that the financial aid had nothing to do with athletics ability. To support this point, he noted how one player who received the scholarship, only joined the team out of gratitude for receiving the scholarship and wasn’t very good. While not the best defense, it is worth noting that MacMurray tennis wasn’t a great team. Under Hart’s leadership, the team earned a 6-7 record during their best season. Unlike most cases we discuss, it’s debatable if this team really got a competitive advantage.
While the Committee on Infractions would acknowledge the philanthropic nature of Coach Hart, it was uncovered that Coach Hart had previously referred to rules regarding financial aid as a joke, something that would truly bother the committee.
Which makes you wonder, had Coach Hart shown remorse for his wrong doings, would he maybe have gotten away with merely a slap on the wrist?
MacMurray College’s men’s tennis team would be banned the squad from competing in intercollegiate competitionfor two years. This was the first time the NCAA has levied its ultimate punishment on a Division III program.
Now, many view the penalties as extreme. However, during the investigation, it was noted that the university had no systems in place to even detect the wrong doings. Therefore, they demonstrated a lack of institutional control. To add icing on top of all of this, the athletics director at MacMurray College resigned mere days before the school was set to appear before the committee. So if the school had another defense, it wasn’t presented.
Mr. Hart had said he was dumbfounded by the infractions committee’s ruling and that being lumped into the same category as the most extreme cases in NCAA history.
However, Gerald Young, who served as the chair of the Division III Committee on Infractions, would say: "These penalties are justified. The coach disregarded one of Division III's most fundamental and best known rules."
In the end, Coach Hart would never coach tennis again, but remained at teacher at the university.
Now, unfortunately, this story has an even sadder ending. In March of 2020, MacMurray College announced that it would be closing its doors after the 2020 spring semester. After years of financial challenges, the college was unable to remain financially viable.
So, the question is, does the punishment fit the crime? And was the crime really an actual “crime” to begin with?
Was Professor Hart just trying to do something nice for his players by setting them up with some money for college to secure a good future?
Of course, the NCAA gave their verdict, but what would you have done? Do you think banning the team from playing for two years was a fitting punishment or would you not have punished the team at all?
We here at Major – Stories of NCAA Scandals hope you enjoyed our first episode covering the world of NCAA scandals.
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Thank you everyone for tuning in, again I’m your host Chris Brown wishing you a good day and life free of scandal!