In recent weeks, USC men’s basketball has climbed as high as fifth in national polls—the program’s highest ranking since being ranked #5 in 1974. Amid the hoopla around a program that has never won an NCAA title, a bit of perspective. What if Trojan Head Coach Andy Enfield, without prior notification, benched star player Chevez Goodwin? He’d be allowed to practice with the squad, but when USC plays Pac12 rivals like Arizona, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA, Goodwin is not even on the bench; he’s in the stands watching his teammates.
Sounds outrageous, right? This is how USC men’s water polo coach Marko Pintaric has treated senior Marko Vavic. An Olympian who represented USA in the 2020 Tokyo Games—meaning he is one of the dozen top players in the entire country—Vavic and his brother Stefan have been sidelined from playing with their Trojan teammates for two years.
One consequence of this decision, presumably dictated by USC’s Office of Athletic Compliance in conjunction with the school’s Office of the General Counsel—both offices declined comment—is the Trojans squandered an opportunity at an 11th men’s NCAA title. USC dropped a one-goal decision to Cal in a final that Marko certainly would have impacted.
At least Marko got to play for two seasons at USC, including 2018, when he won a national championship. His brother Stefan, who arrived in Los Angeles two years ago as a heralded freshman, has never played an intercollegiate competition for the team that his father Jovan led for two decades. As things look now, it’s possible he will never don the Trojans’ distinctive crimson and gold gear.[Top Five Stories from 2021: No 1—Hard Truths Require Tough Leadership]
This situation does not exist in a vacuum. For the past three years the senior Vavic has been fighting charges that he took $250,000 in bribes as part of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal—with $100,000 of that money ended up paying for the tuition of Marko and Stefan when they attended Loyola High School, a prestigious private school in Los Angeles.[Scandal Engulfs USC: Jovan Vavic, Head Men’s & Women’s Polo Coach Arrested Over Fake Admissions Scheme]
Despite the older Vavic’s legal troubles, to the average fan there’s no clear reason why his sons should be punished for Jovan’s (alleged) actions. So why have they been sidelined? I spoke recently with Rick Allen, a principle with The Informed Athlete, one of the country’s leading advisors on NCAA, NAIA, NJCAA, and CCCAA eligibility issues. Allen considered Marko and Stefan Vavic’s rights in addressing why USC, one of America’s most recognizable collegiate athletic programs, chose to sideline its best water polo athletes.[Why Stopping the Vavics from Playing is Bad for Water Polo]
– Someone at USC has kept two of their most talented men’s water polo players, out of the water the past two years by. Why might that be?
It’s possible the USC compliance office or the USC general counsel’s office has instructed that they be withheld from competition. The reason potentially could be that if there are eligibility concerns about their father’s actions, USC may be being very conservative.
If they could win a national title without [the Vavics] they would not run the risk of forfeiting any matches.
A thing to share is a section in the NCAA manual that, if for example, Vavic or his kids sought an injunction [contesting] whatever reason USC may have had, and if a judge were to say: You can’t hold them out [of competition] just for this reason. If they were then to compete and later on down the line it was shown that they were ineligible and they should not have competed, even in case of an injunction like that, if it’s over-turned or reversed, the NCAA could potentially take away that title, make them forfeit competitions [the Vavics] had participated in, etc.
– The Vavic boys have done nothing except be subject to legal machinations that apparently impede them from playing. Is USC taking the path of least resistance in keeping the Vavics out of the pool?
They’re being cautious and they could—I’m speculating—have assessed their team talent overall and say: We have a reasonable shot to win the whole thing without these two guys. If we were to do that, we won’t lose any sleep at all whether we might have to forfeit this in a year or two when this whole thing is resolved through the courts system.
But if we do compete with them because we think we have to have them to win the championship, then there’s possibly going to be a shade of doubt in the back of our minds that at some point in the future, we’ll have to forfeit this championship.
– The NCAA is not preventing them from playing, so Pintaric can put them in the water whenever he wants…
Could there potentially be allegations that Vavic’s sons Marko and Stefan were admitted to USC as part of this scandal?
So, admission should not be an issue.
– The only thing that’s suspect, from what I understand, is that for one year Marko and Stefan’s tuition at Loyola High School was paid out through Rick Singer’s charitable organization.
As long as they are academically eligible, in a normal situation it would be [Pintaric’s] decision whether he would put them in the line-up or not. The coach has total control over who they choose to compete, who they red-shirt and who they cut from the team. Unless you get an unusual situation where the athletic department or university administration tells the coach what to do.
Aside from that, as long as they’re academically eligible, he should totally have the control of his program to put those guys in the line-up.
– To extend that, if he’s not putting those guys in the line-up, especially when they could help him win, does it suggest that someone on the compliance side is making that call for him.
If they are good academic students, if they satisfied all the eligibility requirements, if they’re good citizens of the program, if they’re not causing disruptions, then that might be possible.
Sometimes you hear of athletes who are a negative influence in the locker room or are disruptive to the team chemistry. As long as these guys don’t fall into any of those categories then it would suggest that Pintaric is being told that he can’t put them in the lineup.
– I’d like to to know from USC’s athletic department: if these athletes are eligible, why aren’t they playing?
They’re probably going to say that they can’t comment on this under federal privacy laws.
I just remembered this next point—the chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions is a guy named David Roberts. He is the special assistant to the Director of Athletics at Southern California. The chair of the infractions Committee is on the USC staff; [Roberts] may be telling them something along the lines of: Hey, I don’t want that case coming before my committee. Don’t let them go near the pool.
– That goes to the Greek tragedy aspect of this situation—the sons suffering the sins of their father. Marko’s future in water polo is fine; he likely finished his USC coursework and he’s played professionally as well as in the Tokyo Olympics. Stefan hasn’t had any of that; in fact he may never get to play on an NCAA champion like his three siblings.
You said Stefan’s in his second year right now?
Division I athletes have a five-year clock to compete in four seasons. The five-year clock is a fairly common term in college athletics. [An athlete] has a five-year period to compete for four seasons. What could benefit Stefan down the line—though he probably wouldn’t feel that way—as long as he was academically eligible and on the roster last year, he should be granted an extra year of eligibility.
Every NCAA sport, as long as [the athlete] was eligible and on a roster during that one-year cycle—spring of 2020, fall of 2020, winter of 2020-21—were given an additional year of eligibility. So, if they can get this resolved before next season he should have an opportunity to have four full seasons of competition.
That may not help him feel any better but at least it helps him gain some opportunity [to compete].
– As a DI sport with scholarships, water polo offers eight full scholarships for women and four and a half for men. This fall USC had 34 athletes on their full men’s roster. Might USC’s scholarship situation be changed by a case like this because there are athletes who might need that scholarship money—especially if it’s clear that Marko and Stefan won’t?
Regarding scholarships—especially at a school like USC, a member of the Pac12—if the athlete receives a scholarship in their very first year at the school, scholarship rules for Power Five conferences means that athlete’s scholarship can’t be reduced for athletic reasons.
In other words, a coach can’t say: You didn’t perform as well as we wanted you to. Or you didn’t contribute to our success as much as we wanted you to. We’re going to reduce your scholarship.
You’re not allowed to do that. The only valid reasons [a school] can reduce a scholarship is if the athlete has an eligibility issue or if they violate team rules. If they were involved in a student misconduct issue like having alcohol at the dorm. Or, if they voluntarily leave the team or inform the school that they’re going to transfer.
– Stefan has an eligibility issue. He’s not allowed to play!
The way this scholarship rule is written here in the NCAA manual, I believe they would have to verify that he is ineligible, rather than leave it hanging as “he might be. We’re not sure. We’re being cautious.”
The rule says: “Financial aid based in any degree on athletic ability may be reduced or canceled during the period of the award…” Point number one: “if an athlete is rendered ineligible for intercollegiate competition based upon the recipient’s action or inaction.”
– That would mean he was off the roster if he was declared ineligible.
It wouldn’t necessarily mean he’s removed from the roster but would mean he’s ineligible to compete. He could remain on the roster, but he’d be ineligible for competition. And if he’s ineligible for competition, then they would have the right to cancel his scholarship. I believe they’d have to make a definite determination that he is in fact ineligible, they’re not just being cautious and withholding him so [they] don’t have to forfeit later on.
– If Vavic wins his legal case—and I would never bet against Jovan Vavic—there will be a lawsuit against USC for wrongful termination. If I’m USC—which literally perp-walked the winningest coach in its history off the pool deck—what might be the ramifications of that?
I would think that as far as any precedent for other schools… we already see cases where high profile football and basketball coaches are fired, and they still get a settlement of millions of dollars in [a] buyout.
I would think this will ratchet that up. Buyouts are only going to a higher number, or they may reduce the number of schools who are going to fire a coach with cause so they can avoid the big buyout. They’ll just need to find another donor to get a bunch of money to buy out that coach’s contract.
– A non-revenue producing sport like water polo does not compare to sports like football or basketball. Can you think of any cases where a coach has been accused of malfeasance and turned around and sued his school after he was exonerated?
Right off the top of my head I believe that LSU basketball—and you might want to research the details—which was caught up in a basketball scandal [in 2017]. A shoe company was allegedly paying third parties to influence recruits to attend certain schools.
Will Wade, the LSU basketball coach had either been fired or suspended for that. He was then exonerated—I don’t remember the details on that.
– The comparison with big-time collegiate sports is helpful. Sean Miller in Arizona, Rick Pitino in Louisville have faced allegations of high six-figure payoffs that make-or-break major programs. Is there a precedent where athletes have been excluded from competition and their eligibility clock has been impaired?
Point number one: I can’t think of any example right off hand. Point number two: I don’t know if legal action would be necessary. There is an avenue where schools can seek a waiver on behalf of athletes to get an additional year of eligibility added on to an athlete’s clock.
The general guideline for that is when an athlete has missed two different seasons due to injury or illness or other circumstances beyond their control. The simplest example is: If a water polo athlete missed a season due to a torn rotator cuff in their left shoulder and then they missed another season because of a torn rotator cuff in their right shoulder. That’s a typical scenario where that athlete would have another year added on to their clock through an “extension waiver” because they missed two seasons due to reasons outside their control.
It would be interesting if USC were to seek the waiver because they’re the reason [Stefan’s] not participating.
If the younger Vavic were to transfer to another school, then that school could possibly seek a waiver and say: Here are the reasons he was withheld from two seasons [of play] and did not have the opportunity to compete. This was outside his control; it was all about his father’s legal situation. The NCAA could grant him an additional year of eligibility.
– So, Stefan can control his own destiny. If Stefan Vavic was a client of yours—given what we’ve discussed—would you advise him to consider leaving USC?
If he were a client and he contacted us and requested a consultation I would explain how the transfer process works, similar to how I just did for you and would suggest that he give it some serious consideration before taking any action.
Another thing I just thought of—and again I don’t know if it applies in this case—but if it concerns that the money that paid his tuition at [Loyola High School] … let me say it this way. If we were talking about where a booster paid for a top basketball recruit to sign with Duke or a top football recruit to sign with Alabama, when there’s an NCAA violation like that, it only makes that athlete ineligible at that particular school. It doesn’t necessarily damage that athlete’s eligibility at another school.
If USC is withholding him because he might be ineligible based upon whether his high school tuition was paid by a “USC booster” or a representative of the school’s athletic interest, then it only makes Stefan ineligible at USC.
He could approach this as: USC, you’re withholding me because you think I might be ineligible, these rules only make me ineligible here. I’m going to go somewhere else where there’s no question of my eligibility.