NIU sinks swimmer’s hopes

By Jerry Lawrence

An NIU student with great athletic ability, intellectual potential and his tuition bills paid might seem to have a lot more than most.

But a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) by-law ended Oscar Chavez’s hope of becoming a great asset to the NIU College of Business and NIU’s swim team.

Chavez, a 20-year-old freshman from Mexico City, Mexico, left DeKalb Wednesday at 3 p.m. Before sundown he was on a flight back to Mexico City less than two weeks into his first semester. This morning he will attempt to make a late start on classes at a university in Mexico City.

Up until a few days ago Chavez was enjoying his classes right here in DeKalb, making friends and getting to know the rest of the swim team.

“I just loved him and the kids just loved him. He would have been a great part of our team,” NIU swimming coach Jeanne Fleck said.

Fleck said Chavez would have immediately received the number two spot for breast stroke, no small feat for a freshman athlete.

Chavez has quite a notable history in swimming. In 1991 he was made Mexico’s 18-member swim team for the Pan-American games where he came in eighth and fifth place in two races competing against the finest swimmers in the western hemisphere.

Chavez was to receive a partial athletic scholarship from NIU with the rest of his tuition paid for by a “sponsor” in Mexico. This sounded great to Chavez, until last week when he went to see NIU’s special assistant to the president for NCAA and institutional compliance and eligibility, Robert Brigham.

“We were both very optimistic about his future at NIU, but then he asked if he could have his tuition bills sent to a second person,” Brigham said.

Brigham said he immediately became concerned about Chavez’s eligibility under NCAA rules.

“He said he had a ‘sponsor’ and I asked him what he meant by that. He told me how somebody he knew in Mexico would be paying part of his tuition,” Brigham said.

Chavez explained, “Part of my tuition was going to be paid by an owner of some swimming pools in Mexico City. He knew I could swim well and he wanted to help me go to school and learn business and some day go to work for him.”

Unfortunately for Chavez, his sponsor was not a family member placing him in direct violation of an NCAA rule. Article 15.01.03, to be exact.

“I had no idea what they were talking about. Before I moved up here, I received a letter from the International Student Office saying that everything was OK. I didn’t think there could be any problem with how I paid my tuition,” Chavez said.

But as Brigham said, the rule is pretty clear. “The NCAA is very specific about who can pay the tuition of a student athlete. If he were any other kind of student, it doesn’t matter who pays the tuition.”

Brigham gave Chavez several options on how the money from his sponsor could be directed through his parents or by setting up a separate scholarship at NIU. Brigham said such a scholarship could not be earmarked for Chavez, but NIU would probably then give Chavez another internal scholarship.

While this all fell within NCAA rules, it sounded like wheeling and dealing to Chavez. “I thought and my parents thought it sounded a little unethical.”

Chavez didn’t blame anyone at NIU for his misfortune. “It’s just one of those bad things that you can’t do anything about. If it’s anybody’s fault it’s mine for waiting so long to decide I was going to come.” Chavez’s first contact with NIU was in June.

He came to NIU not just to join the swim team, but also because of NIU’s renowned business program. “In June I made the final decision of Northern over Arizona State University because I had heard about how great their marketing program was,” he said.

Because he had yet to formally enter the business program, Chavez took the general education classes most other freshman take. While many incoming students might not like the large distant learning environment, Chavez said he could learn more that way.

“With the big classes and a professor not looking over your shoulder, you can learn more just on your own,” he said.

His cheerful optimism doesn’t end there. As Chavez’s last contact with NIU ended on his way to the airport, and with no clear resolution to financing his education, he smiled and said, “You’ll see. I’ll be back.”