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At UMass, a scholarship pledge doesn’t pan out and an athlete feels betrayed

Coming out of Natick High School, Emma Peck believed she would play four years of field hockey at UMass Amherst, relying heavily on an athletic scholarship to pay her way. It didn't work out that way.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Emma Peck was living a young athlete’s dream. As a sophomore at Natick High School in 2020, Peck verbally committed to accept a partial athletic scholarship to play field hockey at UMass Amherst for a coach yearning to win a national championship.

Peck and her parents said the coach, Barb Weinberg, spoke of the “100 sisters” Peck would gain as teammates over her four years in the program. They recall Weinberg assuring them that Peck could lose her spot on the roster — and her athletic scholarship — for only two reasons: academic failure or misconduct.

Now the Pecks feel betrayed, and their experience serves as a red-flag reminder to high school recruits that a coach’s verbal offer is not ironclad, that the vast majority of athletic scholarships are not guaranteed for four years (they are renewable annually), and that a coach who miscalculates a recruit’s value may try to reduce their athletic financial aid or eliminate it altogether by driving them out of the program, causing them — often under duress — to voluntarily relinquish their scholarship.

The Pecks allege that Weinberg, after asking them to alter the terms of Peck’s scholarship even before she arrived on campus last year, cut her from the team just four months later for reasons that had nothing to do with academic performance or misconduct. Weinberg then, in a conversation captured on an audio recording with the coach’s consent, told her that her remaining athletic financial aid would be severely reduced.

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Athletic scholarships, no guarantees
WATCH: Sports editor Matt Pepin discusses an athletic scholarship pledge that did not pan out the way one student hoped and how others can avoid disappointment.

One of Peck’s former teammates told the Globe that she, too, felt deceived by Weinberg after the coach initially offered her a 50 percent scholarship as a junior in high school. The player, who asked not to be identified, said that just before she signed to play at UMass, her family approved Weinberg’s request to change the scholarship terms to zero for her first year and 75 percent for her remaining three years.

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The player said Weinberg ultimately granted her a full scholarship for only one semester before cutting her in December, the same day as Peck, and left her without athletic financial aid for the remainder of her UMass education. She appeared in only one official game before Weinberg cut her.

Peck and her former teammate said Weinberg caused them emotional distress by pressuring them to voluntarily leave the program — and surrender their athletic financial aid — before she cut them. They allege that Weinberg wanted to shift their scholarship money to players or recruits she preferred.

“It’s truly disgusting what she has done to try to get us to quit and take away our money,” Peck said.

Barb Weinberg has been UMass's field hockey coach since 2016 and has compiled a record of 67-44. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Weinberg issued a statement defending her recruiting and coaching, without addressing the specific allegations made by Peck and other former players.

“As a Division 1 program, we hold our student-athletes to the highest standards of performance and commitment within a framework that prioritizes mental health and overall well-being,” Weinberg said. “The student-athletes currently in our program or those who have participated in field hockey at UMass were recruited in good faith and have been treated fairly.”

UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement that he is “fully supportive of Coach Weinberg and her stewardship of our program.”

“Under her leadership, our program carries a Top 25 national ranking and a team cumulative GPA above 3.7,” Bamford said. “Over the past three years, Coach Weinberg has earned high student-athlete experience scores from our women, earning marks well above national averages and ranking in the highest tier among her coaching peers at UMass.

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“In addition, the decisions she has made relative to student-athlete recruitment and roster management have been entirely appropriate and professional.”

Bamford said a review by the university cleared Weinberg of any wrongdoing. The review, however, did identify shortcomings.

“We recognize that Coach Weinberg’s communication around student-athlete recruitment, financial aid considerations, and roster retention was not as clear as it could have been,” Bamford said.

When the Pecks presented Bamford with evidence that Weinberg had agreed in writing to the scholarship arrangement she tried to alter in cutting her, Bamford assured them he would honor the written agreement. Bamford also granted a scholarship for summer classes to Peck’s teammate who was cut the same day and was otherwise left without additional athletic financial aid. The player said she is angry that the scholarships Weinberg offered her during the recruiting process failed to materialize. She said she also considered the free summer classes that Bamford granted her an acknowledgment that she had been shortchanged.

Is gender bias at play?

UMass field hockey finished the 2022 season ranked 19th in the country.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Experiences like Peck’s, in addition to serving as a cautionary tale about recruiting methods, represent a warning that the risk of losing a roster spot has rapidly increased since the NCAA’s transfer portal opened in 2018, enabling student-athletes to freely switch schools and coaches to pursue them. In Division 1 field hockey alone, nearly 800 players have entered the portal; four of them have transferred out of Weinberg’s program, and she has brought in seven transfers to play for her.

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Since 2016, when Weinberg took over at UMass, 22 of the 42 freshmen who have joined her program have departed with eligibility remaining, including 15 who lasted two years or less. Some had been recruited by the previous coach. Others were international players whose careers were cut short by travel and health concerns due to the pandemic or who withdrew for other reasons.

Several other former players told the Globe that Weinberg either did not fulfill her scholarship recruiting offers or encouraged them to leave and give up their aid after they joined the team.

“The turnover rate and what happened with Emma is indicative that nothing has changed with Barb,” said Megan Davies, a goalkeeper from England who played for Weinberg on a 50 percent scholarship and was a captain of the 2019 team. “I too felt forced to leave, in the spring of my freshman year, when I was told to discuss with my parents if I still wanted to be a part of the program and to consider whether I would be happy just playing for the club side.”

Bamford defended Weinberg’s player retention rate.

“Our roster attrition is consistent with other Division 1 field hockey programs over the last five years, especially given the pandemic and explosion of the transfer portal in Division 1 college athletics,” he said.

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Weinberg, citing an increasing number of complaints nationally against female coaches, referred the Globe to Thomas Newkirk, an Iowa-based lawyer who believes gender bias has factored in the trend. Newkirk said he has identified about 225 female coaches across the country who have acted no differently from male coaches but whose careers have been damaged because of gender bias after complaints by female athletes.

Newkirk, who said he is not serving as Weinberg’s attorney, described the complaints from her former players as “a minor deal being blown out of proportion.”

“The idea that a Division 1 athlete, an adult of 18 to 22 years of age who knows that things change, didn’t get a scholarship or as much of a scholarship as she hoped to get is going to the press and filing a complaint is crazy,” Newkirk said.

He did not dispute that the athletes felt harmed.

“They’re feeling that Barb has let them down and put them down, but what we don’t want to talk about as a society is whether those feelings are justifiably laid at the feet of someone other than the athlete,” Newkirk said.

He said society generally “feels overprotective about a female athlete who complains about emotional harm.”

Other specialists in intercollegiate sports said complaints against female coaches are often not based on gender bias or misplaced feelings. They said athletic directors across the country have received complaints about both male and female coaches allegedly breaking verbal promises or trying to “run off” scholarship athletes they no longer wanted.

Under NCAA rules, universities are prohibited from reducing or not renewing athletic financial aid because of “a student-athlete’s athletic ability, performance, or contribution to a team’s success.” Students, however, do lose their aid if they voluntarily leave a program.

Peter Roby, a former athletic director at Northeastern University, said the desire to provide more security for student-athletes has been behind a push by the general public, some parents, and even legislators for four-year scholarships that renew automatically each year, barring certain violations by student-athletes.

Roby is a member of the Knight Commission on Interscholastic Athletics, an independent organization that has long influenced the governance of college sports. He also consults for the NCAA.

Part of the problem, Roby said, is that “there are more cases than there should be of coaches running players off their teams.” He said he is not familiar with the details of the UMass cases.

A last-minute revision

Weinberg, 40, a two-time All-American as a player at the University of Iowa, was a member of the US women’s national team from 2005-10 and was the alternate US goalkeeper at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

She served as associate head coach at Wake Forest before Bamford hired her. At UMass, Weinberg has gone 67-44 in her quest for a national title but has yet to win an Atlantic 10 postseason tournament or advance to the NCAA playoffs. Falling short of her goal, has, however, not been for a lack of scholarships.

Almost everyone on Weinberg’s roster receives some athletic financial aid. UMass Amherst last year granted $12.7 million in total athletic scholarships, of which the largest portion, $3.7 million, went to the football team.

To help satisfy Title IX equity requirements, most of the UMass women’s teams have received the maximum number of scholarships permitted by the NCAA, while several men’s programs have come up short in order to fulfill the needs of the football program and women’s teams. The baseball team, for instance, last year granted only a fraction of a single scholarship (.93 percent) of the 11.7 scholarships allowed for the season by the NCAA.

By contrast, Weinberg has received the equivalent of 12 full scholarships a year, the NCAA maximum for a Division 1 field hockey team. Last year, 21 of her players shared $577,000 in athletic financial aid, with four receiving full scholarships and 17 splitting the balance.

Emma Peck believed she would have more playing time to prove herself on the field before her coach's plans for her changed.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Peck and her father, Steve, said Weinberg told them during the recruiting process that she envisioned Peck becoming her starting center defender. Everything Weinberg told them was so appealing, they said, that Peck verbally accepted Weinberg’s offer of a 30 percent athletic scholarship for four years. For in-state students, the cost of tuition, room, and board in 2023-24 at UMass Amherst is about $33,000; it’s about $55,000 for out-of-state students.

However, the night before Peck signed her national letter-of-intent, Weinberg asked her to restructure her scholarship so she could use some of the money to launch a summer program for the team.

Under the revised terms, Peck agreed to accept 10 percent of a full scholarship each of her first two years, then 50 percent each of her last two years. Steve Peck, a public school teacher, said the family agreed to the change, despite the extra burden of funding the first two years, for the good of the program.

Steve Peck said his family bought into Weinberg’s vision of a team of sisters. Steve and his wife, Christina, also a public school teacher, demonstrated their affinity for the program by hosting four of Peck’s teammates from foreign countries over the last Thanksgiving break.

Coincidentally, on the day before Thanksgiving, Bamford gave Weinberg a contract extension through 2025 that increased her salary from $96,000 to $120,000. He said Weinberg was among nearly 10 UMass coaches who received raises due largely to the university’s effort to comply with the 2018 Massachusetts Equal Pay Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against workers because of their gender when calculating wages.

Peck, however, did not figure in the coach’s future plans. She said Weinberg repeatedly urged her to consider transferring or withdrawing from the team and playing club field hockey because there was too large a talent gap between her and her teammates. Under either option, Peck would have relinquished her athletic scholarship.

Peck continued practicing, believing she should have more time to prove herself on the field. Off the field, she remained a strong student (3.2 GPA) and a solid citizen at UMass, an aspiring teacher who has worked at the university’s preschool and volunteered at an Amherst soup kitchen.

But, just a week after Thanksgiving, Weinberg summoned Peck to her office. And Peck, suspecting bad news, requested and received the coach’s consent to record the conversation.

The recording, which Peck shared with the Globe, indicates she grudgingly accepted being cut but sought Weinberg’s assurance that her scholarship would be honored.

“My biggest concern right now — this is literally a life-changing conversation for myself and my entire family, is the scholarship,” Peck said. Is it “going to be continued or discontinued?”

The terms would change, Weinberg made clear. She said Peck would receive only 10 percent each year if she stayed at UMass. As for the 50 percent for each of Peck’s last two years, Weinberg said she had informed her family that it was contingent on her contributing more on the field — a claim the Pecks adamantly deny.

What’s more, the Peck family was aware of the NCAA rule barring universities from reducing or taking away athletic scholarships because of a player’s athletic contributions.

Roby said, “If the student-athlete has gone to class, been a good person, and has represented the institution the right way, just because the coach doesn’t think she’s going to be able to contribute on the field, that’s not a reason for losing a scholarship.”

In addition, the Pecks had a copy of Weinberg’s written request for the 10-10-50-50 arrangement, which they had approved. The communication, which Peck shared with the Globe, makes no reference to the scholarship being contingent on Peck’s development on the field.

“The 50, 50 that you promised, I need that to stay in college,” Peck told Weinberg in the meeting. “I’m going to community college if I don’t stay here.

“I’ve done everything you’ve asked. I’ve worked my ass off. You made the commitment to me to be on this team, and I made the commitment to you guys, for four years. And now you’re kicking me off.”

Weinberg never budged on the scholarship terms. She told Peck “the legality of things” was that she lost the 50 percent her last two years because the arrangement had been based on “a verbal projection” of her development on the field.

Steve Peck described Weinberg’s treatment of his daughter as “sleazy and disgusting.” Peck herself has filed additional complaints against Weinberg with the NCAA and UMass, including its Title IX office.

Weinberg said in her statement, “We approach recruiting and the process of building a roster in a manner that serves the best interest of our team goals through transparent conversations, which are both professional and supportive.”

Despite the questions about her recruiting methods, Weinberg appears to be popular with her players. The university provided the Globe survey results for the last three years that show Weinberg ranked in the top five annually of 18 UMass coaches who were evaluated anonymously by their student-athletes.

One player seemed to encapsulate the team’s general feeling about Weinberg. The player said, she “cares about us a lot but [is] not great about communication.”


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.