MacMurray College Tennis and the Death Penalty

Nearly every season, at least one college athletic program commits a violation in the eyes of the NCAA. Typically, in response to such violations, the NCAA will punish the program and school. Most punishments involve monetary fines. In more severe cases, the punishment may be loss of athletic scholarships or even banishment from postseason for a certain amount of seasons. In very rare occasions, the crime is so heinous in the eyes of the NCAA that they implement the “death penalty” on the program.

The death penalty in college athletics is a complete shutdown of the program that committed the crime. When the death penalty is enacted, the sports program in question is suspended from competition for either one or two seasons, the coaching staff being banned from any athletic activities, the elimination of scholarships and recruiting for a two-year period, all institutional staff serving on NCAA boards to resign and be suspended from attaining such positions for four years, and the institution to relinquish all voting privileges on NCAA issues for four years.

According to the NCAA website, the death penalty is only considered if the program is a repeat offender or if the offense is large enough to warrant the punishment.

In the history of the NCAA, there have only been five examples of the death penalty being implemented, with the shutdown of Southern Methodist University’s football program being the most famous. The most recent occurrence of the enforcement of the death penalty occurred in the mid-2000s to the MacMurray College men’s tennis team.

MacMurray College was a Division III private college located in Jacksonville, Ill. The school was never known for their athletics, and their men’s tennis team was no exception. The program hadn’t had a winning season since 1994 when Neal Hart took over the program. Hart, a well-traveled professor, had accepted a position at the college in the mathematics department in 1999 and inherited the men’s tennis team along with the position.

With MacMurray’s lack of success in athletics, and the athletic department’s inability to provide athletic scholarships due to their Division III affiliation, Hart knew he would have an uphill battle with recruiting top talent. It wasn’t until a foreign recruit for the program emailed Hart explaining his financial hardship with attending college in the United States that Hart had an idea. He approached his nearly 100-year-old father, a lifetime banker, and requested he create a scholarship for international students. The scholarship, titled the Argentine-Kenyan Scholarship, was accepted by the college. There were no prerequisites to qualify for the scholarship; each recipient had to be handpicked by Hart.

Neal Hart / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

From 2000 to 2004, Hart and the men’s tennis program saw little success. However, the “scholarship” was still handed out each year. In the first year of the scholarship’s existence, two tennis players received 5,000 dollars per semester. In its second year, three players received nearly 17,000 dollars. The year after that, the scholarship reached 55,405 dollars, with the numbers continuously rising. In the timeframe between 2000 and 2004, Hart gave away 162,000 dollars to 10 different scholarship recipients, all men’s tennis players personally selected by Hart.

During the 2004-05 season, MacMurray College men’s tennis had played one match before the NCAA began investigating possible violations made by the school and Hart. When the athletic director heard of such violations and the impending investigation, he canceled the remainder of the season in hopes of being in the NCAA’s good graces.

As part of the investigation, school members had to present information in front of the Committee on Infractions. One of these members was Hart. Hart had the option of providing a written statement, but instead decided to present in person. During his presentation, Hart referred to the scholarship as a “scheme” and stated that several NCAA rules were “a joke.” This angered the committee, hurting MacMurray’s case.

At the end of the investigation, the NCAA decided to implement the death penalty, suspending the MacMurray College men’s tennis program for two years. In the final report, the NCAA stated that, although Hart’s intentions were from a place of good, the rules infractions were blatant, and the amount of money given away gave MacMurray a significant competitive advantage. In addition, the NCAA believed Hart to play fast and loose with the rules, with his comments to the committee not helping his case. Gerald Young, the chair of the Division III Committee on Infractions at the time, said “These penalties are justified. The coach disregarded one of Division III’s most fundamental and best known rules.”

Overall, the MacMurray College men’s tennis team ceased activities for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. In addition, the team was banned from postseason play the two following seasons. This would ultimately not matter, as MacMurray College opted to not bring the program back after the sanctions were lifted. Hart would continue working at the college as a professor, but his tennis tenure had ended with winning no more than six matches in a season.

MacMurray College would close its doors at the end of the spring 2020 semester due to financial hardship.

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