The NCAA announced on Tuesday that it has leveled sanctions against the men’s water polo program after violating “impermissible benefits rules.” The news came in a press conference where the NCAA also discussed violations committed by the men’s and women’s cross country and track programs regarding “athletically related activity restrictions.”
The UCSB men’s water polo team is currently 18-5 this season after opening the year with 15 straight victories, and are currently ranked 4th in the country.
“The violations in both programs were rooted in the failures of the two head coaches to maintain open lines of communication with UC Santa Barbara’s compliance staff,” the committee said in its decision. “Both coaches operated independently of the compliance staff, either assuming they knew the rules or acting with indifference towards applicable rules. Their conduct resulted in multiple Level II violations of well-known NCAA rules.”
Level II violations, labeled by the NCAA as “Significant breach of conduct,” and considered to be the second-most-heinous level of violations, are defined as:
Violations that provide or are intended to provide more than a minimal but less than a substantial or extensive recruiting, competitive or other advantage; includes more than a minimal but less than a substantial or extensive impermissible benefit; or involves conduct that may compromise the integrity of the NCAA collegiate model as set forth in the Constitution and bylaws.
These mark the school’s first-ever Level I, Level II or ‘major’ infractions cases.
The violation in the men’s water polo program involved special incentives for 2 elite international men’s water polo student-athletes in the recruiting process. The NCAA did not name those student-athletes. The head coach of the UCSB men’s water polo team, Wolf Wigo, “impermissibly facilitated housing for one of the student-athletes who wanted to come to Santa Barbara prior to his enrollment and compete on a local club water polo team.” That led to other violations, including free meals and transportation.
Further, both student-athletes received ‘improper compensation’ for their work at the club which is co-owned by Wigo and his assistant Ryan McMillen.
The NCAA, in describing these violations:
“The two coaches paid the student-athletes a monthly stipend that equaled the exact amount of their rent and transferred the payment directly to the student-athletes’ landlord. The stipend amount was significantly higher than the hourly rates paid to other student-athletes performing similar jobs at the club, and it varied in amount as the apartment rent varied. Additionally, the club sometimes paid the two international student-athletes for work not actually performed. Accordingly, the compensation was improper and constituted an extra benefit. “
While there has been a lot of recent movement on NCAA student-athletes’ ability to profit from their likeness, these violations would likely not be cleared in any of the proposed legislation that has been made public, though the proposed legislation might open up loopholes that could allow other avenues for funneling the same money to student-athletes.
Wigo, who is in his 14th season as head coach at UCSB, is a 3-time U.S. Olympian and former captain of the USA Water Polo Men’s National Team. He has also worked as an on-air commentator for NBC during their Olympic water polo coverage.
The NCAA concluded that both the head track and water polo coaches “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in their respective programs,” and that both coaches were ‘personally involved in’ the violations and neither consulted with the school’s compliance department.
The violation came to light when the Santa Barbara landlord where the student-athlete stayed reported it to the NCAA. That landlord is the owner of a “rival water polo club” in Santa Barbara, and Wigo described their relationship as “tense.” Wigo maintains that he never asked or pressured the coach of the club team that arranged the housing to do so, and that he deliberately kept his distance from the student-athlete to avoid arranging anything for him.
As for the matter of the over-compensation, the NCAA says that the club had employed “many” UCSB men’s and women’s water polo student-athletes over the years, and that in every other case they had been paid hourly, earning $12/hour. In the case of the 2 student-athletes in question with regard to this violation, they were paid monthly stipends, in spite of a lack of coaching tenure with the club. During the 2015-2016 academic year, one student athlete was paid $790 per month; the following year, both student athletes were paid $600/month. A year later, they each earned $587/month. In each case, the stipend was the amount of the student-athletes’ monthly rent, and the money was paid to their landlord directly.
Wigo says that this was an arrangement made with the student-athletes, and that they would simply work the number of hours they needed to work to pay their rent. When hourly rates were calculated, the two student-athletes earned “approximately $29 and $36 per hour, respectively” across the 2-year period.
Wigo and McMillen argued that their rates were justified because they were better coaches, in spite of a lack of experience, and were named head coaches; and that the rates were consistent with rates paid to other head coaches of other water polo clubs in California. In total, student athlete 1 was paid approximately $17,000 for his work, and student athlete 2 was paid approximately $11,000 for his work.
Ultimately, the NCAA ruled that poor record-keeping and the gap between compensation for the two athletes in question as compared to their peers on the UCSB teams outweighed the coaches’ arguments.
The NCAA did, however, rule that there was no “unethical conduct” violation by Wigo because the panel believes that Wigo did not “willfully attempt to subvert NCAA recruiting or benefits legislation,” instead citing poor judgement.
The lack of prior major violations and a history of prompt self-reporting of Level III or “secondary” violations, plus a prompt addressing of the matters in question, led to leniency in the ultimate penalties by the NCAA.
Core Penalties by the NCAA (that impact men’s water polo):
- Probation from November 5th, 2019 through November 4th, 2021
- A self-imposed penalty where the UCSB men’s water polo team did not participate in the 2018 post-season (conference or NCAA tournament)
- UCSB will pay a fine of $5,000 plus 1% of the program budget
- For the 2019-2020 academic year, UCSB reduced its scholarships by 5%, based off the number they awarded in the 2017-2018 season; and for the 2020-2021 season, they will reduce scholarships by 7.5%, based on the average of the previous 4 academic years.
- In the 2018-2019 academic year, UCSB self-imposed a reduction in the number of official paid visits by 12.5% based on the average of the previous 3-years. In the 2020-20201 academic year, they will again reduce by 12.5%, based on the average of the previous 4 years.
- UCSB men’s water polo self-imposed a ban on unofficial visits from April 2018 through September 2018, and will have a 6-week moratorium during the 2020-2021 academic year.
- Wolf Wigo is under a two-year show-cause period that will prohibit him from participating in all off-campus recruiting activity, whether that be with UCSB or another NCAA member institution. Wigo will also be suspended for 30% of the team’s matches during the first year of that show-cause period.
- Ryan McMillen will have the same penalty for 1 year from November 5, 2019 through November 4, 2020 and will be suspended from all coaching duties for 30% of the team’s matches during that period, after the head coach serves his suspension.
- Public reprimand
- All regular season and conference tournament records from the period when the two ineligible student-athletes participated will be vacated through the period where they were again ruled eligible. UCSB did not participate in the NCAA Championship tournament in any of the years in question.
- A self-imposed restriction on any international recruiting from April 1, 2018 through December 31, 2018