Four fall foul of an assist too far

March 21, 2003

At least four major US universities are embroiled in an athletics scandal on the eve of a national basketball tournament worth $1 billion (£622 million) to participating schools.

The schools variously admitted to, or are charged with, falsifying academic papers and credentials so that their best players could remain eligible to compete or allowing athletes to violate the rules of the body governing intercollegiate sport.

The president of one of the schools has resigned, one coach has been fired and some of the universities have been disqualified from the competition.

Robert Wickenheiser, president of St Bonaventure University, quit after it was disclosed that he had allowed the admission to St Bonaventure's of an outstanding basketball player who fell well short of eligibility requirements. The player required a degree from a community college to transfer to a university and compete in intercollegiate play but had earned only a certificate in welding.

St Bonaventure, a Franciscan Catholic school with 2,200 students in New York State, also suspended its athletics director, head basketball coach and the president's son, who serves as an assistant coach. The university said it would forfeit six games won. In response to this, the school's remaining student basketball players refused to play their final regular-season games, drawing national condemnation for bad sportsmanship.

At the University of Georgia, assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr - son of the head basketball coach - was fired after being accused of paying bills and doing schoolwork for at least one of the school's star players. And Fresno State University, where a former student has alleged that he was paid to write academic papers for basketball players, said it would voluntarily keep itself out of the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament.

The annual tournament, called "March Madness," is worth $1 billion in television rights paid to the universities.

Villanova University, meanwhile, lost 12 players to suspensions for allegedly using university resources to make long-distance telephone calls in violation of rules that forbid financial gifts to student athletes. But the suspensions were staggered so that the school would continue to have enough players to compete in the NCAA tournament.

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