The NCAA is wrong to apply a rule retroactively that renders Ari Dimas ineligible
The story had been going so well. Ari Dimas, a walk-on in 2009, began this year a senior captain for the Virginia men’s soccer team; all of his goals for the Cavaliers had come as game-winners. Dimas was never recruited for athletics — he made it into the University with the intellect that would later grant him ACC academic awards while as a midfielder. He played 336 minutes in the first six games of this season and blogged once a week for the team, which then asked him to walk off. To Dimas, this is not too fair of an ending, especially because the NCAA bylaw he infringed was not even codified at the time of his breaking it.
College athletes are given four years of eligibility to play for their team. This would have been Dimas’ fifth year playing soccer, according to NCAA bylaws. His first year at the University he competed in club soccer and practiced with the women’s varsity team. He started competing for the men’s varsity team his second year, and it won a national title; he remained on the roster as he went into grad school. But this same arc that vaulted Dimas from the club team to a national champion has now turned against him: His eligibility expired because of his year of club play. Last season was his last season; this was just overtime.
The varsity team followed the books in doing things right. Virginia coaches were notified about Dimas’ status by another institution Sept. 10; the University declared him ineligible the very next day. The University’s immediate turn-around and its self-reporting of the violation to the NCAA were responsible actions. The NCAA must have agreed, leniently deciding to dock nothing against the men’s soccer season save a $3000 fine.
Nor is Dimas at fault. NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199 states that a year of club sports counts as a year of eligibility if the school with the club team also has varsity. This bylaw was adopted in June 2009 — Dimas had played club in fall 2008. At that time, the bylaws said nothing about club sports with regard to eligibility. Before 2009, relevant compliance forms did not even question students about club sports involvement, Eric Baumgartner, the associate athletics director for compliance, said in an email. So the notion that club sports could count as a year of varsity was largely alien when Dimas was playing club. Thus, Dimas — who at that point had hopes to join the men’s team — had no way of knowing that a year playing club soccer could have counted against future NCAA eligibility.
There ought to be a conversation about whether club athletics at a school that has varsity should count as varsity play. But that is not the issue in this case. Many legal systems guard against retroactivity, so that a law enacted after an event does not count against actions committed before it. The University was acquiescent enough to the NCAA to retire a fan favorite forever. The NCAA should understand, in turn, that a player should not be punished for a rule he, or in this case no one, had been aware of at the time. Sub Ari back in.