Colorado football players collected scholarship money despite legal troubles


Lynn Katoa was a four-star football prospect coming out of his senior year in high school in 2007, a major recruiting coup for head coach Dan Hawkins and assistant Brian Cabral. But success on the playing field would never materialize for the star high school linebacker. Almost immediately after enrolling, he was arrested under allegations that he assaulted a non-athlete student with a rock. He was charged with assault and suspended from the university for the fall 2008 semester, which would have been his freshman year. He continued to do poorly in school and could not regain academic eligibility. He left the school without even playing a down.

Katoa was the recipient of the Presidential Scholarship II, a piece of financial aid for out-of-state student-athletes with very specific criteria that must be met before being renewed. The man in charge of renewing that scholarship was then-head coach Dan Hawkins, who, despite the appearance that Katoa failed to meet the scholarship requirements, seems to have renewed Katoa’s award after the player returned from his initial suspension.

There are several other instances where Hawkins apparently renewed scholarships for troubled football players, despite circumstances that suggested the players did not meet the minimum requirements. At the time, the Presidential Scholarship was funded by the university’s general fund and the University Initiatives Fund in the CU president’s office, not the athletics department, raising questions about whether taxpayer money was being used to fund scholarships for delinquent out-of-state athletes.

Former CU President Hank Brown created the Presidential Scholarship in 2006. Brown gave the chancellor of each campus some flexibility in how the program would be administered, and at CU-Boulder it was originally intended to be offered to the top 5 percent of the incoming nonresident freshman class, based on their GPA, class rank and test scores. Another 20 scholarships were reserved for student-athletes, in what would become a separate offering with its own criteria essentially identical to that of a standard scholarship provided by the athletics department. Student-athletes only had to maintain “good academic standing” as defined by the NCAA, which at CU ranges from 1.8 to 2.0, while non-athletes had to have a minimum GPA of 2.75. The award amount for both athletics and academics was set at $40,000 ($10,000 a year for four years), though the amount given to academic scholars would increase to $55,000 ($15,000 a year for the first two years and $12,500 a year for the second two years) in 2009.

Photo illustration by Dave Kirby

The standards for the academic version of the scholarship appear to have been upheld strictly. In one case, redacted documentation provided to BW shows that a student whose GPA dropped four one-hundredths of a percent below the minimum lost the academic scholarship permanently. The standards for the athletic version of the scholarship don’t seem to have been as stringently enforced.

The Presidential Scholarship program seems to be run more even-handedly at CU-Colorado Springs (UCCS) than at the Boulder campus. Jennifer Fisher, assistant director of scholarship programs, says that at UCCS, the minimum GPA that Presidential Scholars must maintain is the same for athletes as it is for non-athletes: 2.75. The scholarships rotate around the various UCCS sports, and Presidential Scholars who do dip below the minimum GPA have one semester of probation to bring their grades up, or they lose the award, she says.

The form letters sent to non-athletes by the CU-Boulder chancellor described the honor as “the university’s largest and most prestigious scholarship award.” It was to be given to students who not only demonstrated a special talent or skill, but who maintained a minimum GPA and who remained continuously enrolled at CU (at least 12 credit hours a semester). In the case of athletes, the scholarship rules for CU-Boulder also required recipients to “demonstrate commitment to excellence” and remain “actively and positively” involved in the athletics program.

But some football players did not meet those requirements, yet continued to receive the Presidential Scholarship.

Katoa, who was reportedly one of the most sought-after linebackers in the country when he came out of high school and joined the Buffaloes, is perhaps the most egregious case of a student who shouldn’t have been continuously awarded the Presidential Scholarship. He started attending CU in January 2008, and according to media reports, he was involved in an altercation at an off-campus apartment about a month later, on Feb. 16. Witnesses said he barged into the apartment yelling, allegedly pushed one victim’s head into a wall and hit him in the forehead while holding a rock in his fist, then reportedly punched a second victim in the head, Boulder police spokesperson Sarah Huntley told The Denver Post at the time. According to media accounts, he became upset after seeing a friend, a fellow CU linebacker, attacked with a stun gun outside the apartment building. He pleaded guilty in July 2008 to felony menacing and agreed to a deferred sentence, the Daily Camera reported.

Lynn Katoa

The Parade All-American linebacker from Salt Lake City was suspended from the university for the spring and summer terms by the Office of Judicial Affairs, according to the Camera, and was not academically eligible to play football anyway because he wasn’t able to complete enough coursework. The Camera reported that he continued to do poorly in his classes that fall and into spring 2009.

So Katoa did not meet the minimum requirements of the scholarship in several ways: He did not have the necessary academic standing, he was not continuously enrolled in school, and his arrest casts serious doubt on whether he was in fact demonstrating a “commitment to excellence” or “remaining actively and positively involved in CU’s athletics program.” In addition, he failed to maintain eligibility and participation in intercollegiate athletics, much less adequate progress toward his degree, as required by the athletic scholarship guidelines.

Those guidelines state, “If the award is cancelled due to failure to meet the renewal criteria, the cancellation is permanent and the award will not be reinstated.”

And yet he still received the Presidential Scholarship when he returned to school in spring 2009.

The team eventually cut him, and he went on to violate the conditions of his deferred sentence by skipping his court-ordered substance abuse monitoring and treatment, the Camera reported. He was accused of head-butting a former teammate in July 2009 and punching several people in the face during a fight in January 2011, according to the newspaper, and he landed on the Boulder Police Department’s “Most Wanted” list this spring before being arrested in Utah last month.

Another former Buffs linebacker, convicted sex offender and Presidential Scholarship II recipient Michael Sipili, also made a strong first impression as a true freshman in 2006, when he challenged senior Thaddaeus Washington for playing time. But his off-the-field behavior would derail his then-promising career.

On June 16, 2007, he was arrested along with two other players and charged with second-degree felony assault and criminal mischief. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and received two years probation, 80 hours community service and four days work release according to news reports. The team suspended him the first three games of the 2007 season, but just before the semester started, the university suspended him from the campus for the entire term, which eliminated him from playing his sophomore year in college.

Michael Sipili

Sipili would return to the field in 2008 with three years of eligibility left. Though his football skills improved as he aged, his off-the-field behavior does not appear to have followed suit. He was arrested on Jan. 12, 2011, after being accused of raping a 22-year-old woman while she had consensual sex with one of Sipili’s teammates. In a somewhat bizarre plea deal, he ended up pleading guilty to felony sexual exploitation of children and misdemeanor third-degree assault.

Sipili seems an unlikely candidate to receive the Presidential Scholarship. In April 2009, the Camera wrote, “[Sipili] admits he still has work to do to make sure he is academically eligible in the fall, but he seems confident he will get there.”

Sipili received the Presidential Scholarship II as a freshman in 2006, but not during the fall 2007 semester, during which he was suspended from campus. But upon returning to campus in spring 2008, he once again began receiving the scholarship, and got it again in fall 2008, and presumably received it the rest of his academic career. (CU officials say they cannot discuss whether or when a particular student received a scholarship due to federal privacy laws regarding student records.)

Sipili never graduated from the university, according to the registrar’s office. He never returned to school after the fall 2010 semester.

Another football player who received the Presidential Scholarship II was Nathan Vaiomounga. The defensive back had several run-ins with the law: He was arrested in January 2008 and charged with criminal mischief after he allegedly broke a window in a residence hall, he was cited the following month on an underage drinking charge, and he was arrested in November of that year on suspicion of stealing a woman’s purse at Farrand Field, according to media reports. Documents show conflicting information on whether he continued to receive the scholarship in spring 2008, and he withdrew from the university in January 2009.

Entering the 2007 season, ranked Hawaiian-born Kai Maiava as the 31st-best high school center in the nation. He elected to attend CU, and he received the Presidential Scholarship II for that school year.

He made an instant impact as a freshman, starting the majority of the season at left guard. His bio on the football team’s official website said he was an “honor roll student his sophomore year in high school, where his grade point average always hovered around 3.0.” For non-athlete Presidential Scholars, the average GPA is around 3.85, according to the university’s website.

Kai Maiava

Maiava, whose brother, Kaluka, plays in the NFL and whose uncle is actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, was ticketed on Jan. 19, 2008, on suspicion of underage possession and consumption of alcohol, according to The Denver Post. He completed an alcohol diversion class, and the ticket was dismissed. CU records show he received the scholarship for the entire school year.

He transferred to UCLA after his freshman year, and he was academically ineligible to play in the 2009 EagleBank Bowl, the Los Angeles Times reported. By his senior year, a team trainer was calling him a “leader,” but in September 2011, he was suspended for one game after testing positive for marijuana, according to reports. The Times reported that according to team rules, an athlete is only suspended after testing positive for marijuana three times. A fourth positive would result in being kicked off the team and losing a scholarship.

Maiava failed to join his brother in the NFL after college.

• • • •

The athletics department’s dire financial situation in 2006 may explain the motivation behind the creation of the Presidential Scholars Program, at least in part.

The expansion of Folsom Stadium in 2003 prompted a financial bailout of the department in ensuing years, and the sex-related football recruiting scandal that rocked the university in 2004 and likely contributed to the downfall of the head coach, athletics director, chancellor and president probably didn’t help either.

The $42 million expansion of the stadium involved the addition of 41 luxury boxes and 1,863 club seats, which were expected to bring in enough money to pay for the project in the long run. But the athletics department has periodically required bailouts from the university ever since.

In 2006, the university agreed to provide the athletics department an additional $3.5 million to balance its budget. According to reports, a portion of that was dedicated to the stadium expansion bonds, in part because only about 35 percent of the club seats had been sold that year.

The Camera has subsequently reported that the amount the campus loaned the department in 2006 was $8 million, reflecting the amount it had to pay to former coach Gary Barnett in the financial settlement related to his departure following the scandal.

So it would make sense that, as part of that concerted effort to bail out athletics from its financial woes, the president’s office would create an avenue to help offset some of the department’s scholarship costs, even if it was through the back door. After all, for every football player who gets the Presidential Scholarship, that’s potentially $40,000 less in tuition that the athletics department has to pay over four years.

In fact, according to minutes from the Oct. 5, 2005, Board of Regents meeting at which the Presidential Scholars program was discussed, “A priority for the athletic department is pursuing a ‘tuition waiver for out-of-state student-athletes’ to address budgetary issues.”

The minutes note that Brown stressed the funds would not be athletics-specific, but would instead recognize “extraordinary expertise and accomplishment.”

• • • •

The Presidential Scholarship created by Brown initially relied on campus funding, according to CU-Boulder spokesperson Bronson Hilliard, but in subsequent years it relied in part on money from the University Initiatives Fund in the president’s office, a discretionary pool generated by interest earned from the university treasury. It is public money, not private donations like the funds held in the CU Foundation, and presidents have used it to fund pet projects for years, with the approval of the Board of Regents.

In an interview with BW about the intent of the Presidential Scholarship, Brown initially described the program as part of the effort to bail the athletics department out of its financial hole. But then he corrected himself, saying he was thinking of a different effort and clarifying that it was not intended solely for athletics, “it was to recognize exceptional students who made contributions to the university.”

When advised that athletes not only had a lower bar than the general campus in terms of the minimum grade point average required to keep receiving the scholarship, but that certain athletes continued to get the money even after failing to reach that lower bar, Brown initially argued that football players were held to a higher standard than the general campus. But he also expressed reserved concern.

“Obviously, to get the scholarship, they should have maintained that [minimum GPA],” he says. “Without knowing what the people who administered it came up with, you know, I haven’t been involved in it, the awarding of it, but my recollection is that minimum academic achievement was part of the prerequisites and one of the requirements to get it.”

He added, however, that he didn’t want to come across as lambasting something that has gone on under the watch of current CU President Bruce Benson.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing Bruce, but I can say clearly, to receive the scholarship, you should meet the minimum academic requirements,” Brown says. “It’s bizarre that they would — it’s hard to figure out what they were thinking of, isn’t it?” And when told about the football players who have violated the terms of the scholarship and yet continued to receive it, Brown said there may have been problems in the way the program was implemented, despite his original intent.

“Obviously if the question is should you follow the rules, absolutely,” he says. “It strikes me you’re on to quite a story; if I were you, I’d be checking with [Athletic Director] Mike Bohn, because obviously that’s something that ought to be looked into.

“You set ground rules on those things,” Brown continues. “As far as I know, those ground rules should still be in place. If there’s a problem, as we’ve talked about in these areas, it would fall in the area of someone not enforcing the rules.”

Bohn could not be reached for comment before press time. Benson’s spokesperson, Ken McConnellogue, said he’s certain that Benson is not familiar with the scholarship.

• • • •

Presidential Scholar Michael Sipili never graduated from CU.

The program was renamed the “Athletic UCB Merit Scholarship” in 2009, according to CU spokesperson Hilliard. And the president’s office stopped contributing to the scholarship in 2010. It is now funded solely by the campus to the tune of $1 million (100 scholarships) a year, Hilliard says, representing about 25 percent of the athletics department’s total scholarship budget.

Despite the fact that the regents originally approved the Presidential Scholars as a single systemwide program as proposed by Brown, Hilliard stressed that at the Boulder campus, the two versions of what was known as the Presidential Scholarship have always had different criteria, and that the athletics version has no minimum academic standards that student athletes must comply with. They only need to be nonresidents and athletes, according to Hilliard.

But one of CU’s own documents clearly states that the award may be renewed for up to four years, “provided the student-athlete continues to demonstrate commitment to excellence” by fulfilling a list of requirements, including maintaining full-time enrollment, being in good academic standing in the eyes of the NCAA (the 2.0 minimum GPA), and remaining “actively and positively involved in CU’s athletics program.” When the regents approved the scholarship in 2005, they did so under the conditions that recipients would “continue to demonstrate adequate progress and commitment to excellence according to criteria established by the Chancellor of each campus,” according to minutes from the December 2005 meeting.

Hilliard says that while he can’t discuss individual student cases, a student-athlete would normally keep receiving the scholarship until he or she was no longer enrolled.

“My understanding is that the student would continue to receive the scholarship until such time as that individual was actually disenrolled from the university proper,” he says.

Hilliard says that there’s no objective way to determine whether a player meets the more open-ended criteria for renewal of the scholarship, such as remaining actively and positively involved in CU’s athletics program.

“That’s a matter of opinion,” he says. “The determination of the player’s eligibility is made by the coach.”

The university examines athletes’ eligibility for the scholarship each semester, Hilliard says. He explains that Dee Menzies, CU’s associate registrar for regulatory compliance, sends paperwork about athletes’ eligibility to the head coach of the football team, who then makes the determination on whether to continue the player’s scholarship. In the cases of Katoa, Sipili, Vaiomounga and Maiava, that person would have been Dan Hawkins, the head football coach fired in 2010 after compiling a 19-39 record at CU. The final decision about determining their eligibility for the scholarship, which is based on criteria like achieving academic progress toward a degree, being in good academic standing and remaining actively and positively involved in the program, was in Hawkins’ hands.

“The coach makes the determination [whether to terminate the scholarship] based on the information he receives,” Hilliard says.

“The coach might say, ‘Oh, this guy stumbled in his positive contribution to the team, but in these other areas he’s eligible.’ … If you’ve got six of the seven [criteria] that you’re good on, the coach can make the determination that you’re on a positive trajectory in some way and you’re eligible to receive the scholarship.

“He has to get that feedback from Dee’s office on the basic numbers … and then he has to make a subjective determination.”

When asked about her role in assigning the Presidential Scholarship to athletes, Menzies said, “I give them a list of people who qualify as out-of-state students. … I send my list to the Office of Financial Aid and their budget office. That’s the only people I communicate with.”

In response to a request for comment, Hawkins issued the following statement via email: “I am not familiar with the Presidential Scholar program, other than that must be what Mike [Bohn] had told me once that we were getting some financial relief on some of our scholarship costs. We had a max of 85 on scholarship, and it was really simple. If you were in good standing on and off the field, you were on the team and on scholarship. If you got kicked off or quit, it [financial aid] was terminated at the end of that semester. If you were suspended for violating team rules, you remained on scholarship as long as they were meeting all requirements for reinstatement. I never had separate lists showing me where the scholarship dollars were coming from, I knew some had donors through the Buff Club, but don’t recall at all hearing of the Presidential Scholarship or any separate requirements other than what we had for everyone on the team.”

When asked whether a student who violated the basic requirements of the scholarship should have continued to receive the award, Hilliard told BW, “I don’t want to speculate, because I don’t know, but if a student is reinstated as a full, participating student-athlete in good standing, according to NCAA rules and CU rules, I don’t see why they wouldn’t resume getting the award they’d gotten previously.

“I just don’t have any indication from anyone I talked to that we have not followed our own rules,” he adds. “I think what we may have here is a situation where you’re interpreting those rules through the prism of the information that you have. Everyone I have spoken to has said we feel confident we have followed the rules here. No one has presented to me any red flags or anything we were particularly nervous about. We are a little hamstrung with this story because we can’t speak about individuals.”

Citing the stringent reforms implemented in the athletics department after the 2004 scandal, Hilliard adds, “I would be very surprised if something like this happened, where we were somehow illegally giving a scholarship to someone, or their status had changed and somehow they were still receiving it.”

When asked whether the scholarship was partially intended to help the athletics department address its budget woes, Hilliard told BW that the motivation was to address the perpetual need of boosting scholarship support for student athletes, which did also have the effect of giving “a needed shot in the arm” to the athletics department’s budget.

The NCAA allows football teams to provide 85 full-time scholarships to student-athletes. That budgetary shot in the arm from the university is fine by the NCAA, says spokeswoman Stacey Osborn, as long as the aid is counted under that limit.

“We have rules for each sport as far as the maximum allowed for athletic scholarships that a team can have,” she says. “If a student-athlete receives a scholarship and it’s for academic reasons, then it’s not counted in that minimum. If a student-athlete receives a scholarship and it’s based on a different standard than non-athletes, then likely it would need to be counted within the team limits. If it’s not, then that’s where there might be a potential issue.”

CU athletics spokesperson Dave Plati insisted that all scholarships, including the Presidential Scholarship, are reported to the NCAA and counted toward the football team’s 85-scholarship cap. He ruled out the possibility that CU would use the Presidential Scholarships to pad the number of scholarships it can offer football players by not counting them toward the team limit.

“There is no way you could fake that, that would be exposed pretty easily,” he says. “I guarantee you that’s not going on. It’s pretty easy for them to figure out, and if you were to actually try to pull that off, that’s a major violation.”

Plati says that in his three-plus decades at CU, the football team has rarely reached the limit of 85 scholarships; the list usually hovers between 79 and 83 players.

Hilliard adds, “My understanding is that in the awarding of these, everything was reported to the NCAA through our regular NCAA reporting processes, that there have never been any irregularities cited in our reporting on these matters.”

• • • •

After speaking with multiple CU officials, it remains unclear whose job it was to decide who got the Presidential Scholarship II. Brown suggests someone may not have been following the rules. Spokesman Hilliard says the head coach makes the determination based on eligibility information provided by Menzies, the associate registrar for regulatory compliance. Menzies says she just provides a list of out-of-state atheletes eligible for the scholarship to the financial aid department. Hawkins, the coach at the time of the irregularities, says he was unaware the scholarship existed; he just decided which football players received scholarships without caring about the source of the funding.

It seems only the NCAA could determine who was in charge of what.

And it remains to be seen whether the NCAA cares if an institution violates its own scholarship rules by giving preferential treatment to student athletes.

The NCAA would have to get that information by requesting it directly from CU. When asked if information provided by Boulder Weekly to the NCAA provided enough evidence to launch an inquiry, Osborn said, “Unfortunately, that’s not something we would confirm one way or another.”