Ineligibility could send athlete back to Haiti

Although USF tennis player Neyessa Etienne is here in Tampa, her thoughts lie in the war-torn capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince.

Mostly she thinks of her parents, Junior and Genevieve Etienne, citizens of Haiti’s capital city. But Port-au-Prince is on her mind for another reason. If the NCAA does not clear her to play tennis, Etienne may have to return to the troubled country.

“That is the question I don’t even want to think about,” Etienne said. “Right now, I am really happy where I am, here at USF. I really like it here and I really love the team. I really enjoy it, and I really don’t want to think about it.”

Etienne, born in Haiti, moved to Panama when she was 13 before coming to Florida to attend Fort Lauderdale Prep. After graduating, Etienne played under Jamaican-born tennis coach Greg Russel during the summer of 2003. Under Russel’s guidance, Etienne competed in Women’s Tennis Association sanctioned matches and that is what the NCAA is concerned about.

According to NCAA regulations, American athletes can play in professionally sanctioned tennis matches before coming to college if they follow certain guidelines. As long as athletes sign in as amateurs and spend more money on expenses than they are making in prize money, they remain eligible to compete at the collegiate level.

USF women’s tennis coach Gigi Fernandez said Russel led Etienne to believe that if she signed as a professional she would be eligible to play in college, provided she was still spending more than she was making. Etienne began playing under the title of professional, with negative results: Russel began to profit because he received a cut of her winnings and she became ineligible to play college tennis.

“He basically screwed her,” USF coach Fernandez said. “Then when she decided to go play college tennis he turned around and got very mad and started calling the NCAA and making all of these allegations.”

According to Fernandez, Russel has consistently called the NCAA trying to keep Etienne ineligible. Fernandez and the Athletic Department, however, have been appealing the ruling of ineligibility.

“(The NCAA) will make exceptions for extreme cases,” Fernandez said. “To me, this is an extreme case. It’s not clear-cut; it’s not black and white; it’s not. She wanted to play professional and she signed up professional and she had the money. It was like this guy blatantly lied to her — full-on told her that it didn’t matter that she was signing up (as a) professional, because he was profiting from her.”

With no word on a decision from the NCAA, Etienne continues to practice with the team everyday but looks on as a spectator at home matches and is prohibited from traveling with the team for away matches. Fernandez is frustrated because she said if Etienne had been eligible so far this season, losses would have been wins instead. Etienne questions the current outcome of the season too, but with a tone of modesty.

“It is hard, because sometimes (I think) what if I was there? Maybe we could have won,” Etienne said. “I am not saying we would have won, but maybe things would have been different.”

But more than the outcome of a match hangs on the NCAA’s decision. If the association deems her permanently ineligible, Etienne will lose her scholarship, a loss that may well force her back to Haiti.

“If I go back to Haiti, what am I going to do?” Etienne said. “I mean, I want to get an education, so if I don’t (become) eligible I guess I have to go to college. Which? I don’t know where yet, but I don’t want to think about it. I just want to think that I will get eligible.”

Etienne said she did not have a political understanding of what her country was going through when she left at age 13, but now when she visits, the gravity of the current political climate is obvious.

“I was too young to actually understand, but now that I am older and when I go back home like twice a year, (I can see) the country is just going down and down,” Etienne said. “It’s sad to see how bad it is.”

A self-proclaimed Anti-Lavalas, Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s political party, Etienne and her family support the ousting of Aristide and are happy to see him gone. Even before Aristide was unseated, Etienne’s family supported his departure.

“They are against Aristide,” Etienne said.

Etienne added that her parents participated in an anti-Aristide protest in December.

Her parents were unable to leave the country with the rest of Etienne’s family who got out and went to either the neighboring Dominican Republic or to Miami where Etienne has relatives. Her family left to escape the unrest, but her family that did get out plans to return Monday.

“It’s only my mom and dad and sister that are in Haiti,” Etienne said. “They were supposed to go to Santo Domingo, but they got stuck.”

In contact with them on a daily basis, Etienne said her family is safe but staying home and not doing much. Etienne said she would go and see her family in Miami before they leave to go back to Haiti on Monday.

“In Haiti, it is supposed to be Carnival right now and they have the week off, so instead of staying in Haiti (with) the mess, they just decided to leave for a few days,” Etienne said.

Although Haiti is experiencing an increased period of turmoil, the country has never been entirely stable. Etienne said Haiti was not unsafe, just different. She said, however, that the country had become more dangerous.

“Security (is) getting a little bit bad,” Etienne said. “Say somebody comes to your house, who are you going to call? There is nobody you can call — not like here, (where) you can pick up the phone and dial 911. It’s just different.”

Etienne said trust couldn’t even be placed in people hired to protect one’s property and family.

“Where I live, we hired security to stay in front of the house to try and protect us, but you know those people often turn against you and they are the ones that go in your house,” Etienne said. “So far we have been lucky, but that’s Haiti I guess.”

With no plans to go back to Haiti anytime soon, Etienne said she would continue to watch her country’s events unfold on the news. As for Aristide in Africa, Etienne has made up her mind on that.

“I would like to see him stay as far as he can from Haiti,” Etienne said.

Etienne will continue to practice with the Bulls as she waits for word from the NCAA. With the ever-escalating tension in her country, Etienne is happy to know her family is still safe.

“The country is not fine, but they are fine,” Etienne said.