In Dirk Britzen’s mind, he wasn’t doing anything wrong.
In 2001, the senior tennis player from Stuttgart, Germany, played in more than seven tournaments around Europe trying to improve his game. While Britzen accepted prize money, it was only enough to cover his expenses, which is allowed under NCAA rules.
But it was Britzen’s involvement with Kurhaus Aachen, a second-division team in the Bundesliga (a professional club team in Germany), that USF – along with NCAA officials – used to determine that Britzen was ineligible for the remainder of this season.
Britzen and other international tennis players who have played professionally have forced the NCAA to examine older foreign tennis professionals who are dominating collegiate tennis.
According to Associate Athletic Director of Compliance Steve Horton, the NCAA notified the Athletic Department about issues concerning Britzen’s amateur status.
“We were not the only ones to be notified, in all honesty,” Horton said. “There were a number of schools that were, too.”
At USF, five of the six members of the women’s team are international, while four men’s team members – not including Britzen – are from outside the United States.
But it’s not the abundance of international players in Division I (according to the NCAA, from 1999-2004, 28 percent of men’s tennis players were international compared to 21 percent for women); it’s the ability level of those players and their amateur status which are in question.
In last year’s NCAA individual championship tournament, international players made up 38 of the 64 men’s berths and 33 of the 64 women’s slots.
Two of USF’s three ranked players are international – No. 73 Liz Cruz and No. 62 Neyssa Etienne – and Etienne and Gabriela Duch are the No. 19 doubles team in the country. Britzen was No. 28 before he was ruled ineligible.
Although Britzen never accepted money beyond his expenses, it was still determined that he should be stripped of his amateur status.
Nearly every USF tennis player (a search for sophomore Marc Jaeger was unsuccessful) has accepted prize money for tournaments, according to two Web sites – WTAtour.com, which is the Web site for women’s professional tennis, and ATPtennis.com, the Web site for professional men’s tennis. While sophomore Mark Gattiker only accepted $135, some players, such as Iciri Rai ($4,813), won substantial amounts.
Horton said there isn’t a problem with accepting prize money as long as the student-athlete justifies it with receipts.
“Some people accept the prize money and say, ‘Hey, it’s not any more than my expenses,'” Horton said. “It’s just hard to track, it’s a little bit different, and maybe that’s what we have to take a look at it from an NCAA standpoint.”
Cruz, who had accepted $3,593, admitted playing in Futures tournaments – semi-professional tournaments that offer prize money.
Cruz said the tournaments she played in had prize pools of about $10,000. To attend USF, Cruz had to present receipts showing she spent more or equal to the amount of her winnings.
“You kind of look (to see) if they got a hundred bucks and they went out in the first round; it cost $100 to travel, to eat, to room, and you kind of got to wing it as best you can,” Horton said. “If they won a tournament and got $10,000, then you’d probably say, ‘Nope, you’re probably not going to be eligible.'”
Etienne earned $9,674 and won three tournaments – two in doubles, one in singles – and played in more than 91 matches involving prize money.
“(Etienne) had some other situations, in all honesty, I can’t get into, because there are some other issues that don’t relate to NCAA,” Horton said.
Etienne said there was some misinformation she received from her coach that made her declare herself as a professional at tournaments in the United States. An entrant into a U.S. tournament must choose if they are a professional or an amateur, something not required of international players.
The entire process becomes difficult to analyze when an international student attempts to enroll at a university in the United States, especially when it is left up to the university to decide the athlete’s status, something Horton admitted was difficult with Britzen.
“I was unaware of that because it was before he got here,” Horton said. “I probably should have checked it out a little further, but you know how that goes.”
Horton said there are no plans to check the status of the other international tennis players at USF.
“I think it’s a bit unfair, the rule,” said Britzen, who thinks the whole process needs to be fixed. “I don’t think it’s fair because you’re allowed to play Futures tournaments.
“A lot of guys in college were high in the ADP rankings, and they played a lot of Futures tournaments. That is professional tennis when you play a lot.”
According to Britzen, there is no high school tennis in Germany, there are just club leagues.
“In Germany, club tennis is really common; normally every junior plays for a tennis club,” Britzen said. “You always try to get better and play in the highest league possible.”
But because members of his team accepted money beyond their expenses, Britzen was determined to be a professional.
“I don’t know why it’s considered to be a professional league; I got no money. I didn’t know if the other players had contracts or not,” he said.
Men’s tennis coach Don Barr echoed Britzen’s sentiments that the process should be reworked.
“I think they need to do a real study on what’s fair and what is a professional,” Barr said.
Athletic Director Doug Woolard, who was at one time on the NCAA’s Academic Eligibility Compliance Cabinet subcommittee, said there used to be a proposal that would allow an athlete to compete professionally for a year after they graduated high school and still attend college.
But Woolard said that rule is no longer “in the cycle for consideration.”
Woolard is now part of an ad hoc committee that is putting together an amateurism clearinghouse, much like the clearinghouse that determines a student-athlete’s academic eligibility. Horton said it should be in effect in fall 2007.
“The (amateur clearinghouse is the) standard that institutions could use to determine whether somebody is initially eligible to compete collegiately from an academic standpoint,” Woolard said.
According to Woolard, applicants would have to fill out a survey with questions such as: “Did you play on a professional team?” “Did you accept money?” or “Did you sign a contract?” From there the survey would go to the NCAA staff, which would make a ruling on the individual.
“I think that eligibility is something the NCAA has always dealt with a great deal,” Woolard said. “I’m hopeful that the amateurism clearinghouse will level the playing field for everybody.”