The men’s soccer program at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point has been suspended until further notice, pending results of a federal investigation involving several team members, officials confirmed Monday.
The probe is being conducted by the Office of Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Transportation, the federal agency that oversees the academy.
Federal officials declined to provide information on the nature of the investigation or what prompted it — whether there was an incident or incidents, or a complaint. They also would not say how many members of the team allegedly were involved or identify anyone associated with the investigation.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said, “I was contacted about 10 days ago that there was an incident that occurred on a team bus and it was a serious incident. I was assured that it was going to be fully investigated, and because it is still in the investigating stage, I did not ask for more details. I was assured I would get them [details] when it became more definite.”
King is chairman of the academy’s Board of Visitors, a congressional oversight panel.
Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III said in a statement, “Because our investigation is ongoing, we are unable to provide any further details in accordance with the rules governing sensitive law enforcement information.”
Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, informed students, faculty and staff of the probe in an email late Thursday afternoon.
“The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Transportation has informed me that upperclassmen on the Academy men’s soccer team are under investigation,” Helis wrote. “Accordingly, I am suspending the men’s soccer program pending resolution of the matters under investigation.”
Newsday obtained a copy of the email, confirming its contents with federal officials on Monday.
Kim A. Strong, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, the Transportation Department agency that operates the academy, said the men’s soccer program was suspended on Thursday. The school does not have a women’s soccer program.
“The NCAA has been notified of the suspension. The USMMA has also reached out to incoming soccer recruits to notify them of the suspension of team activities and their options related to their enrollment,” Strong said.
The investigation comes as the academy’s academic programs and student culture continue to undergo scrutiny on several fronts, including by its accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
A year ago, the commission placed USMMA’s academic accreditation on warning, a first for any federal service academy. Among its directives, the Middle States report called on the school to adequately address sexual assault and sexual harassment, governance and financial issues.
Later this month, the Philadelphia-based commission is slated to decide whether the academy has made the necessary reforms to regain good standing. It remains accredited while on warning.
The inspector general’s office is responsible for conducting criminal and general investigations of the academy. “Our top investigative priorities involve review of allegations with a public safety impact, fraud schemes that significantly impact DOT funds, and integrity and personnel misconduct violations,” Scovel’s statement on Monday said.
The inspector general’s office in May launched an audit to review the academy’s program on preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault. It must report to Congress by March 31.
USMMA’s men’s soccer is a Division III program in the Skyline conference of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The team’s record last fall was 12-3, with competitors including Farmingdale State College, SUNY Maritime, SUNY Old Westbury, Stevens Institute of Technology and Sarah Lawrence College. Asked about the suspension, an NCAA spokeswoman referred inquiries to the academy.
Located on Long Island Sound, the 74-year-old federal service academy trains men and women for careers in the commercial shipping industry and to transport goods on U.S.-flagged ships during wartime. The 900-plus students who attend are called midshipmen.
The last year brought unprecedented challenges to the school, beginning with the first-ever shutdown in June 2016 of the Sea Year, an intensive program in which students are assigned to work on federal and/or commercial ships.
The move drew denunciations from some parents, students, leaders of the maritime industry, labor unions and the USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation, but the academy’s leadership maintained it was necessary given a documented problem with reporting of sexual misconduct that was occurring on the ships.
One month later, the academy’s leadership allowed students back on federal vessels but not commercial ships. In March, students were allowed back onto certified commercial ships.
USMMA is the only one of the five federal service academies operated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The other four — the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut; the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland — all come under the Department of Defense.
With Scott Eidler