Investigation Continued: NCAA’s priorities don’t lean toward athlete safety

By Lindsey Boyd (@lindsboyd3 ):

Smacked on the backs of envelopes snail-mailed to prospective Division I football players was a sticker — innocent in nature, but illegal by National College Athletic Association (NCAA) law.

To Mississippi State prospects, that sticker read: “Elite Junior Day 2014 Official Invite.” But, to the NCAA and Southeastern Conference, it had the word “violation” written all over it.

This NCAA violation-worthy sticker was one of several self-reported violations from the Bulldogs, according to USA Today’s Clarion Ledger, and sealed a clear message: The NCAA means business when cracking down on competitive advantages.

But, when it comes to disadvantages like poor practice facilities and athlete safety, NCAA standards barely exist.

In fact, the NCAA does not even require a Division I team to have a practice facility, let alone a safe one.

“The NCAA leaves facilities up to individual institutions,” said San Jose State Athletic Director Marie Tuite.

Potholes, trash, broken glass, vomit, uneven surfaces — all facility concerns that members of the San Jose State Division I track and field team have voiced — fall on the university to regulate, according to Sec 2.2.3 of the NCAA Division I Manual.

“You will want to speak with athletic administrators and officials regarding their school protocols to maintain safety,” said Gail Dent, associate director of external affairs for the NCAA.

Seemingly trivial infractions — congratulating Little League baseball players, dunking dead basketballs 20 minutes before a game, devoting more than 14 percent space to alcohol advertising — are regulated against, but not facilities unless it is a competition site.

Without any rules against it, women’s track and field was inaugurated in 2014 without a facility. As a result, it practiced on the SJSU tennis courts until construction displaced them to 50-year-old Bud Winter Field.

Neighbors walk on it. The public parks on it. And, little boys ride tricycles around the potholes on it.

“Huge potholes,” said Mike Tovar, an SJSU alumnus as he walked around Bud Winter Field. “Like ginormous. It’s dangerous, really.”

Tovar said Winter Field is unsafe, but Tuite and SJSU Chief Financial Officer Charlie Faas disagree.

“You go out there today and you can walk on that track and it’s safe to walk on the track,” Faas said.

He says the “wear and tear” conditions do not hinder the performance of the jumpers on the team. And, the university does not intend to temporarily fix the track.

“You can do a short term fix,” Faas said. “I can go out there and fix the track and throw ‘X’ amount of dollars in fixing the track, but I’m wasting money because I’m not fixing the whole thing.”

The potholes are not going to be filled. The uneven wooden runway that long jumpers run on will remain. And, the wrinkled skin layered atop the cement track can easily be torn off. The status quo will be maintained until enough money is raised to build a whole new facility.

“I know that all of us are frustrated, and all of us want to do more,” Faas said. “But when you have two nickels and you’re sitting there rubbing them together trying to get more than two nickels, you’re only going to get two nickels around here.”

Discounting the Student Union’s $3 million contirution, track and field has raised $8,006 in private donations since August 2016. The school needs about 625 times more donations to reach its $5 million goal.

“If you are going to support that particular sport, then you probably should provide for it and make sure they have the best experience with that,” said Stanford baseball head coach David Esquer when discussing facility conditions.

He also said that if there was a pothole on the baseball field, it would be a liability.

“We would fix the pothole,” Esquer said. “… If there’s an opportunity that would put the student athlete in danger, they [Stanford] would absolutely have to address it.”

But the NCAA does not force the university to make fixes.

In sum, the words “eligibility,” “recruits,” and “awards” may be referenced by the NCAA handbook 1,679 times, but the words “health,” “safety” and “facility” are found only 166 times.

The word “maintenance” is only found twice in 415 pages and is not in associating with college facilities. In other words, if there was a 100-story building, about 90 floors would be dedicated to eligibility, recruits and awards while 10 would go to health, facilities and maintenance.

While walking on the track, Tovar also said Bud Winter Field current state is a “safety issue.”

“If I say that, maybe they [SJSU] go the opposite direction and say, ‘Yeah we need to shut it down’ and then all these people who are running would be pissed, right?” Tovar said, referencing the public who use the track.

Shutting down Bud Winter Field is a concern for Spartan track and field athletes, too, according to Tuite.

The athletes disclosed to The Spear in November that they were unhappy with the conditions of their practice facility. After the interview, Tuite said the team feared its program would be shut down and they did not want to move facilities.

“They [jumpers] came to see me and they want to be right where they are,” Tuite said.

The jumpers continue to improve at Bud Winter Field despite conditions. The triple jumpers are No. 2 in the nation, long jumper Destiny Longmire is No. 1 in the Mountain West and No. 11 in the nation and the entire track and field team is ranked No. 10 in the West, according to the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

Since SJSU does not have a proper track, the sprinters and long distance runners commute to West Valley for practice a few days a week.

“This is what is of concern to me,” Tuite said. “You have student athletes driving to West Valley.”

Driving about nine miles off campus is a concern for Tuite, but the conditions of Bud Winter Field is not.

“I think one of the things that seperates us a little bit from some other schools say Stanford is that we are an urban campus so space is sort of at a premium,” Tuite said.

Since land for SJSU is limited downtown, Tuite and Faas said they are both working to maximize space and build facilities that will reflect the needs of all students.

Faas brought up an issue of his own.

“Some track and field people being displaced is interesting and that’s a problem for a few people, but when 35,000 students don’t have a field that they can play soccer on and run around on… that’s what we are trying to solve,” Faas said.

A new track and field would mean kinesiology classes, clubs and intramural sports would finally have a practice space as well. And, they would not have to use the small patch of grass next to the Associated Students House anymore.

Intramural and clubs are formed as students please. But the track and field team was the university’s decision, so why would the university add women’s track in 2014 if there was no facility in the first place?

Tuite said the decision was to help improve SJSU’s cross-country program. Most cross-country programs also had a track team to be successful but SJSU did not. Instead of dropping an unsuccessful program, the university decided to add women’s track and field.

Currently, Tuite, Faas and Tower Foundation CEO Paul Lanning are crunching numbers to figure out how to pay for a new facility.

“The three of us are the three-headed monster here that has to get this thing solved.” Faas said.

The NCAA did not comment on why it does not have safety requirements for practice facilities, but did send a link to NCAA cross-country and track and field rules for “athlete well-being during events.”

The link does not include any guidelines for practice facilities, only competitive sites.

The Collegiate Event and Facility Management Group (CEFMA) also said it is an institution set up to educate athletic administrators on maintenance and security of facilities. However, it is not an enforcing agency.

The Mountain West Conference declined to comment about enforcing safety standards.

“I am going to talk to [Mayor] Sam Liccardo and see what’s going on,” said Jesse Ibarra, another runner coming to Bud Winter.

For now, SJSU’s women’s track and field team said it will continue to practice and compete.

 

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