NEW ORLEANS -- To qualify for a Tulane legislative scholarship, a student must be from Louisiana, have an ACT score of at least 28 and be in the top quarter of his class.
Nowhere does it say a student must be able to throw a 90-mph fastball, hit a 400-foot home run or run down a fly ball on the warning track. But those skills might improve his chances.
Records show that last season, seven members of the Tulane baseball squad had their tuition fully covered by scholarships awarded by Louisiana legislators.
Though the players were all considered walk-ons by the university, they weren’t exactly warming the bench — in fact, two of them, David Napoli and Brennan Middleton, were drafted by Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals in June. Napoli is touted on the Green Wave’s website as one of the best left-handed pitchers in school history, while Middleton was a four-year starter as a middle infielder.
Like any Division I school, Tulane is barred from awarding more than the equivalent of 11.7 athletic scholarships to members of its baseball squad, which has a roster of 38 men. So the seven legislative scholarships awarded to baseball players last year could have given Tulane, sometimes a national contender in baseball, a significant advantage over opposing teams. (As it happens, the Green Wave had a disappointing season, finishing just over .500.)
Athletic directors say it’s increasingly difficult for expensive private schools such as Tulane to field competitive teams in sports with a limited number of scholarships, like baseball. If the school were found to be using the legislative scholarship program to augment its allotment of athletic scholarships, Tulane could face sanctions from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Tulane officials say they’re in compliance.
Sorting out the truth is difficult because of both the arcane nature of NCAA rules and the murky way in which Tulane legislative scholarships are handed out.
NCAA rules say that the 11.7 baseball scholarships each Division I school awards may be divided among up to 27 kids, with each receiving a partial scholarship. Those scholarships are called “counters.” When a student-athlete gets another scholarship, such as one awarded by a legislator, a university’s athletic director and financial aid director must both sign a form attesting that the scholarship “was granted without regard in any degree to athletics ability.”
So was athletic ability a factor in any of the legislative awards given to members of the baseball team?
“Absolutely not,” said Yvette Jones, Tulane’s executive vice president for external relations. “The NCAA reviews every student-athlete, all the scholarships. And there are no issues with the legislative scholarship being awarded.”
Jones noted that Tulane had 299 student-athletes last year, and only nine of them were on legislative scholarships. All nine were walk-ons, she said.
Viewed another way, only 3 percent of student-athletes got legislative scholarships, but 18 percent of the baseball team had them. Meanwhile, 77 percent of the legislative scholarships awarded to athletes went to members of the baseball team — Tulane’s marquee sport, in some fans’ eyes.
The high proportion of the legislative scholarships going to ballplayers is accidental, Jones said, adding that the team has only three players on legislative scholarship this year.
“I would say it is a coincidence,” she said. “I mean, I don’t think there’s any relationship between them. They’re not recruiting student-athletes. They’re Tulane students who make a decision to walk on the team.”
In at least some cases, though, the team seems to have been expecting them. Middleton, a shortstop who prepped at Parkview Baptist in Baton Rouge, started almost every game throughout his four-year career. Same with recently graduated outfielder Brandon Boudreaux, whose list of athletic honors at Tulane is extensive.
How such a high percentage of baseball players landed scholarships compared to other Tulane sports programs is unclear.
State Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, who gave Napoli a scholarship from 2009 through his graduation this year, said he has essentially jobbed out the process of screening applicants to Tulane.
Murray said he had no idea about Napoli’s baseball skills when he first awarded the scholarship. He said he asked Tulane for some names.
The school sent him Napoli — an Isidore Newman School product who, four years later, is described on the Green Wave’s website as “one of the best southpaws in Tulane history.”
“What I do is call Tulane and ask them to send a list of students from my district who are qualified to receive the scholarship,” Murray said. “Then I review the list and figure out who is the most worthwhile person to give it to.”
Like most legislators, Murray tends to award the scholarship for four years, provided the student achieves the required 2.3 grade-point average. When he first bestowed it on Napoli in 2009, Murray said, he doesn’t remember how many other names Tulane sent along for him to choose from, although he’s sure Napoli’s wasn’t the only name on the list.
“I heard later that Tulane had this great new pitcher, and his name is Napoli,” Murray said. “I never got a chance to watch him.”
But major league scouts were paying attention as Napoli, according to the Tulane website, “put together one of the finest pitching seasons in school history,” holding opposing batters to a .176 average. The Nationals picked Napoli in the eighth round of this year’s MLB draft.
State Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, who sponsored Middleton for two of the last four years, said he, too, asked Tulane for help in choosing a scholarship recipient. Unlike Murray, however, he specifically asked Tulane to send him the names of qualified baseball players.
The school has obliged.
“I’ve tried to help out the baseball team, to give them an extra seat at the table,” he said.
“I’ve always tried to take care of the baseball team. They probably only have 10 scholarships. I’ll tell them, ‘Send me a name.’”
Lopinto said he had no special allegiance to the baseball team: He’s not an alumnus, and he said hasn’t been to a Tulane baseball game since he was elected to the Legislature six years ago.
“I’m more of a Tulane baseball fan than a Tulane football fan, but I’m not really either,” he said.
Jones acknowledged that some legislators have special requests when it comes to the scholarship program, and that the university tries to accommodate them.
“Well, legislators will sometimes, on the list, ask for, you know, ‘I’d like a kid who’s in dance.’ They have done that,” she said.
When that happens, the school’s government affairs office asks the admissions office for names of prospective students, she said. But Jones emphasized that the school does not seek to pad its baseball roster through the legislative scholarship program.
“There is no connection between legislators and any of our athletic programs,” she said.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the sheer number of baseball players getting legislative scholarships begs for an inquiry.
“If alumni or legislators are using this to give Tulane an additional competitive advantage for their athletic programs, that shows you how these programs really aren’t worthy of being maintained,” Goyeneche said.
He said the situation could merit a review by the NCAA.
“If these scholarships are used to supplement the scholarship limits that the NCAA imposes on member institutions, it could potentially be a violation of some sort there,” Goyeneche said.