Murphy Simon was a promising high school athlete in Houston when college recruiters began knocking on his door a few years ago. Simon always had planned to go to college in Texas, but changed his mind after meeting a recruiter from the University of the District of Columbia.
UDC succeeded in luring Simon -- and a handful of other high school athletes from Texas and Florida -- by offering him a full scholarship in baseball and football that he says included free housing, books, fees and meals.
Now Simon, a sophomore fullback and catcher, and more than 60 other student athletes have lodged a complaint with UDC officials, saying the university has reneged on the terms of their scholarships.
University officials conceded that some of the athletes' complaints were valid, saying they had resulted partly from budget cuts.
A letter from football players delivered last week to UDC President Robert L. Green states that, among other things, the university has stopped providing student athletes with free textbooks for their courses. Simon and several athletes interviewed last week said that under a new university policy, athletes are given only four books per semester -- on loan. Others interviewed asked that their names not be used.
"They retrogressed," Simon said. "They took a step backward, not forward."
The students also said the university has scotched training meals before games and has canceled spring practice for the football team. The varsity baseball team had to begin its season without baseball shoes and other equipment, according to several students and university officials. One track team member said he has been unable to get basic training equipment, such as ankle braces and athletic supporters, for two years.
UDC officials conceded last week that the publicly financed university, plagued with athletic department problems since its founding eight years ago, has failed to fulfill some of its promises to students because of a budget shortfall.
"Some of the students have been misled, not fully apprised of the resource capability of the university," said Dwight Cropp, vice president for resource development and management. "In my opinion, you had a situation where a coach "We're not in a position to make a lot of promises to our athletes." -- Vice President Dwight Cropp recruited a number of football players from out of state and hadn't identified the resources in place to meet the commitments to those players."
After a meeting in late March between Green, athletic director Sydney O. Hall and 60 student athletes from UDC's seven varsity sports, university officials promised that next fall, scholarship students again will receive the textbooks they need, possibly on loan. Officials also have pledged special academic support for athletes who have had trouble maintaining their eligiblity because of poor grades.
Cropp said reinstating training tables for varsity athletes, a common practice at most colleges, would cost at least $80,000 and is unfeasible for now.
A UDC spokesman, quoting Hall, said none of the school's 172 athletes are on full scholarships, but 65 have scholarships to cover some of their fees, the $464 per semester charged for tuition, housing, meals, and books. During the current academic year, 57 athletes, mostly football players, were ruled ineligible to compete because they didn't have the required 2.0 grade-point average, equal to a C average.
Cropp quoted Hall as saying that only 12 to 16 football players are eligible now, not enough to justify paying coaches for spring practice. Hall declined to comment on the athletes' complaints.
The athletic advisory committee, composed of students, faculty and community leaders, is now reviewing UDC's athletic programs and will present recommendations to the board of trustees on how the university should proceed with its intercollegiate sports. The committee has delivered a preliminary report to the board of trustees and is currently preparing a more detailed recommendation that will include an estimate how many teams the university can support.
According to Cropp, athletic programs were cut this year because the board did not approve an increase in student athletic fees, which have been $10 per semester since the university opened eight years ago. University officials wanted to raise the fees, now well below average for area universities, to $20. This year's $911,000 athletic budget was based on projected revenues from higher fees that would have covered about $125,000 of the costs, Cropp said.
UDC competes in the NCAA's Division II, and its basketball team won the national divisional title two years ago. By contrast, the football team had a record of 0-8-1 last season.
"We don't even have a [football] playing field and we're not likely to get a playing field in the near future," Cropp said. "We're not a wealthy school. We're not in a position to make a lot of promises to our athletes."
He warned that more cuts may be necessary next year.
"The whole university has had to undergo a belt-tightening," he said. "There aren't the reserves to draw upon that there used to be."
UDC has asked for and the D.C. City Council has approved a $68 million budget for the year beginning Oct. 1.
Students, meanwhile, continue to feel shortchanged.
"I like school but sometimes I feel like packing my bags," Simon said. "The only reason I haven't left is that I felt I could help build the university. I'm not bad-mouthing the university. I like UDC. I'd be willing to help in any way I can."