It was an improbable victory when Grossmont Community College’s baseball team became state champions in 2017. Previously, the Grossmont College Griffins had won conference championships but had never taken home the state title.
Grossmont Community College, as well as junior colleges throughout the country, serve as a launching pad for hundreds of professional baseball players. Prospective pro baseball players often opt for community colleges in order to forego the long wait that goes with a four-year college. As a region, San Diego has been a breeding ground for some of major league baseball’s top talent.
But according to Thomas Armstrong, Grossmont Community College’s former Assistant Athletics Director, the team would have never won the title in 2017 if not for violating rules imposed by the California Community College Athletic Association.
Armstrong says the team’s coaches allegedly did so by holding unsanctioned summer practices, thus giving the players a chance to play with one another. Coaches also allegedly rented out the college’s facilities and pocketed the money.
And when the assistant director reported those violations, Armstrong says college administrators put him on administrative leave, later declining to renew his contract.
“I have no doubt in my mind that the advantage gained in summer league led to the championship,” said Armstrong. “It was a tremendous advantage.”
Armstrong filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in June 2019.
Grossmont Community College hired Armstrong in August of 2016. Shortly after, he says he noticed the field was frequently rented out in the months following the state championship. One rental was for a summer league that was run by the coaches.
According to the California Community College Athletic Association, coaches are not allowed to hold any type of practice with more than one returning player. But Armstrong says he noticed that coaches for the baseball team had rented the field on numerous occasions to summer leagues that they coached in. He says he also discovered that much of the money for those rentals went directly to those coaches and to the baseball program. Lastly, he says he found that more than a dozen players had played together during the summer league.
“They had three to four coaches from Grossmont College working in the league running the league with 13 players with remaining eligibility,” said Armstrong in an exclusive interview with NBC 7 Investigates.
“The rule specifically states that a coach can not interact with more than one player with remaining eligibility during the offseason. It is not against the rules for a coach to participate in the summer league. It's not against the rules for a player to participate in a summer rally, but it is against the rules for a coach to participate with more than one of his own players.”
Armstrong took his findings directly to the coaches and says at first, Head Coach Randy Abshier admitted to holding illegal practices.
“Randy Abshier was honest and upfront with me about running the league,” said Armstrong.
NBC 7’s attempts to contact Randy Abshier were unsuccessful.
“That was how he won. That was how he got his players. He later denied that our conversations ever took place and never spoke to me about the league again,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong told NBC 7 that he took it to the school’s equipment manager who denied any wrongdoing.
That’s when Armstrong says he went to Grossmont College’s Vice Chancellor of Human Resources.
“They did not want to broach it and I got the impression that they wanted me to let it go,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong decided to report the violations he found to the California Community College Athletic Association.
“The state got back to me and they said that based on my interpretation, Grossmont College Baseball Team had, in fact, committed infractions,” he said.
But the state’s response, said Armstrong, did not change the administrator’s position.
“They still denied it and they were going to appeal the findings,” he said.
In the meantime, another college in the same conference formally reported the same violations Armstrong had discovered to the California Community College Athletic Association.
The association responded by placing the college’s athletic department on probation until November of this year. In addition, the baseball team was placed on probation for two years, and on an “informal” probation for the following three years. The athletic department is also banned from recruiting until this November.
As for the coaches, Abshier was suspended for the first six games of this past season and his assistant coaches were suspended for three games, according to Grossmont College.
And while Armstrong said the reporting of the violations eventually cost him his job, he said he felt obligated to report the violations even if it meant his job.
“Number one it was wrong and reporting it was the right thing to do,” said Armstrong. “Number two: My belief is breaking the rules is never OK. You know the kids are wearing championship rings and a coach gets a banner and gets to be on TV. And there are no victims in this and who cares. It was wrong.”
Not long after Armstrong notified the state of the alleged infractions, he said he arrived at the college for work and a union representative was there to greet him. He said he was handed a letter, placing him on administrative leave.
“They told me that my email was being shut off and I had 15 minutes to gather my belongings and I was on administrative leave indefinitely. No reason why,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong’s contract has since expired.
His only recourse, he says, was to file a lawsuit to clear his name and hope that he is not blacklisted from his profession.
“It is very common to get blackballed in this industry if you whistleblow. I was aware of that at the time and it was absolutely terrifying,” he said.
In a statement, a representative from Grossmont Community College told NBC 7 the athletic department has taken steps to prevent similar infractions from occurring.
“Neither Mr. Armstrong nor any employee would be punished for reporting athletics violations. In the spirit of maintaining the college’s compliance with the CCCAA Constitution and bylaws, it is in the interest of the college to hear of any concerns. “
The spokesperson rejected Armstrong’s claim that the college refused to report the violations.
“Grossmont College places strong emphasis on self-reporting as a means of maintaining, and modeling for students, high ethical standards in its athletics programs,” read the statement. “As a result of a self-initiated investigative process to clarify the conditions under which college facilities were rented by college members, college executive leadership became aware of incorrect practices in relation to the college’s baseball team and those violations were properly reported to the athletic conference by members of the executive leadership team.”
To read Grossmont College’s full statement to NBC 7 Investigates, click here.
However, a letter obtained by NBC 7 from John Woods, the Commissioner of the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference, indicates otherwise.
“The Grossmont College staff made a number of decisions inconsistent with [California Community College Athletic Association] Constitution and failed to report violations,” read the letter.
Wood added, “Grossmont College did not self-report the violations.”