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USMMA men’s soccer season canceled amid federal probe, officials say

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's soccer season has

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's soccer season has been canceled this fall. Nov. 14, 2016. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy men’s soccer season this fall has been canceled because of an ongoing U.S. Department of Transportation investigation into alleged sexual misconduct by players, federal officials said Tuesday.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the Kings Point academy’s superintendent who suspended the team in June, said in a statement, “Since team activities remain suspended, the USMMA has notified the NCAA that it will not participate in the 2017 NCAA men’s soccer season. This notification was required to meet the NCAA’s Aug. 1 team participation deadline.”

The Mariners, in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III Skyline Conference, were scheduled to play 18 regular-season games. A 2016 roster listed 27 players, three coaches, a trainer and a manager.

Ten of 11 recruits for the fall season currently are on the Kings Point campus, said Kim Strong of the U.S. Maritime Administration, which oversees the academy. She said the coaches have duties beyond their work for the team and will remain USMMA employees.

The investigation into the conduct of team members is being carried out by the DOT’s Office of Inspector General. USMMA is the only federal service academy that falls under the Transportation Department’s jurisdiction.

Lawyers representing the academy have alleged that soccer players were involved in sexually abusive acts and/or bullying against a freshman on the team bus in September during trips to games in Connecticut and Maryland, and in October on campus.

Tuesday’s announcement also comes as seven former members of the team — all seniors who were scheduled to graduate six weeks ago — must appear in separate administrative hearings before the school’s executive board to answer allegations of sexual misconduct, coercion and hazing.

The seven students, who have denied any wrongdoing, allegedly were in violation of the academy’s honor code and thus their degrees, certificates and licenses are being withheld pending the outcome of the federal probe.

Helis had placed the seven on deferred graduate status on June 8, before the academy’s June 17 commencement. The students sued Helis, the academy and the Transportation Department in federal court, claiming they had been denied due process.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler ruled the former soccer players could participate in the academy’s commencement, but did not allow them to receive their diplomas and other graduation documents.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of USMMA’s Board of Visitors, a congressional oversight panel, said Tuesday he believes federal investigators are conducting a thorough probe.

“It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t finish the investigation by August 1. But on the other hand, it seems to show how seriously they are taking this,” King said.

He said he had no new information on the status of the investigation.

Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes the academy and who also serves on the Board of Visitors, said, “While improvements have been made, this incident demonstrates the need for further reform at the USMMA so that these issues are dealt with expeditiously and don’t continue to negatively impact” students.

Last month, Suozzi and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation requiring the academy to comply with the rules and regulations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The civil rights law bars gender discrimination, including sexual violence, on campuses that receive federal funding.

The nation’s five federal service academies are exempt from Title IX. Suozzi said that proposal “would go a long way towards resolving these issues.”

Capt. James Tobin, president of the USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation, said in a statement: “The AAF is not privy to the details of the investigation or the decision to suspend the 2017 soccer season, nor should we be. However, the actions alleged, which include sexual assault, bullying and hazing, have no place on college campuses; this should be especially so at the five federal service academies — including the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy — that prepare young men and women of utmost character to serve our country.”

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