MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Things could've been worse for the Wisconsin Badgers, but only if they lost their first game.
The NCAA suspended 26 Wisconsin football players Thursday for one to three games for receiving unadvertised discounts at a shoe store after initially declaring 81 Badgers athletes ineligible for the infractions.
The fourth-ranked Badgers still found a way to beat Western Michigan 19-7 in their home opener Thursday night despite benching 11 players for the suspensions.
Those benched included starting receivers Chris Chambers and Nick Davis, cornerback Jamar Fletcher, offensive lineman Ben Johnson and linebacker Bryson Thompson.
"They're angry," receiver Lee Evans said of his suspended teammates. "Nobody wants to be sitting out, not when it's your home opener, and especially at night with all the lights. A lot of stuff was hitting us, but we knew we could beat that crowd. It didn't matter who was on the field -- first-teamers, second-teamers, whatever -- we came to do a job."
Eleven of the 26, including Fletcher, Davis, Johnson and Chambers, were suspended for three games for receiving benefits of more than $500, school officials said.
Another 15 players, including running back Michael Bennett, defensive tackle Wendell Bryant, cornerback Mike Echols and Thompson, were suspended for one game and ordered to do 12 hours of community service.
The discipline stems from reports last month that members of the football and men's basketball teams received special credit arrangements at The Shoe Box in Black Earth, Wis., that were not available to other clients.
Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said he stood by his players.
"They did not get free shoes -- I think it's important to understand that," he said "They went to a discount store and bought shoes at a discount. Obviously, the NCAA saw it differently. They ruled on it, we will live by it. Those are the cards you're dealt, so we have no other choice."
Alvarez joked that the team was going to move in with him so he could keep an eye on them. He said they would all go shopping together from now on.
Chambers' suspension could be an especially tough blow to the Badgers. The team's leading receiver from last season was already sidelined by a stress fracture in his right foot that was expected to keep him out until at least the end of September. School officials aren't sure if he will be allowed to serve the suspension while injured, meaning he could miss more than half the season.
"I think you have tremendous disappointment. You have to feel for them," Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter said. "We felt this was not warranted."
The NCAA ordered all 26 players to serve the suspensions within the first four games of the season. The other six suspended for Thursday's game were: Delante McGrew, George Pratt, Ryan Simmons, Chuck Smith, Stephon Watson and Scott Wille.
Alvarez, who said he never expected his players would be suspended until meeting with the NCAA 10 days ago, hasn't decided when the remaining suspensions will be served.
Smith, Wille and Thompson completed their suspensions by sitting out Thursday's game.
"We're going to be piecemeal for a while, but we'll live with it," Alvarez said.
Another 21 football players, including starting quarterback Brooks Bollinger, were not suspended, but were ordered to perform 24 hours of community service for the discounts they received.
Women's soccer player Wynter Pero also was suspended for two games and ordered to do 24 hours of community service. All the athletes will be required to repay the discounts they received through donations to charity.
The players suspended Thursday were unavailable for comment.
The NCAA notified the university Monday that 81 fall athletes would be ineligible in various capacities. But Richter said the university appealed the finding, and the NCAA then reduced the number of athletes required to serve suspensions and pay reparations to 48.
Richter said many of the players told NCAA officials during their appeals they did not know they had violated any rules.
"This was a shock to them," Richter said.
NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro confirmed the suspensions, but would not comment specifically on the infractions.
Shoe Box owner Steve Schmitt said Thursday he talked to university officials several times about the discounts he offered players, which he said are extended to all his regular customers.
"I think they really overreacted," said Schmitt, who qualifies as a booster because he owns season tickets and has donated money to the school. "I think they made a judgment without understanding this business. How can you criticize something you don't understand? And that's exactly what they did."
Melany Newby, vice chancellor for legal and executive affairs, said the university's investigation was continuing and the school had not made a recommendation to the NCAA whether the violations as a whole constitute a major or secondary violation. But the players' transgressions individually were ruled to be secondary.
The university and NCAA still have to review the eligibility of winter athletes, who also could face penalties.
If the purchases constitute a major rules violation, it would be the third such infraction within the last decade for the university.
The wrestling program was put on probation in 1994 for improper use of booster funds that included impermissible benefits to athletes, a major rules violation.
Last year, the NCAA found the athletic department had committed a major rules infraction because coaches and staff members received reimbursement for expenses from a boosters fund without approval from the chancellor. That probation was scheduled to end in November.
On the Net:
University of Wisconsin: http://www.wisc.edu/ath/front.html
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