Opinion: NCAA gave UNC ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card in cheating scandal

UNC graduates at spring commencement on last year at Kenan Stadium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Melanie Busbee/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Last month, a controversial decision came down from the National Collegiate Athletic Association on the fake independent study classes offered by the University of North Carolina for two decades. There were no instructors in the classes and barely any work. The courses, which any student could take, appear to have begun as way to help UNC-Chapel Hill athletes maintain eligibility.

Although the scandal was considered one of the worst ever in college sports, no one will be sanctioned by the NCAA.

As Inside Higher Ed reported:

After a three-and-half-year investigation, and despite the institution even agreeing that it had engaged in academic fraud, the NCAA said it couldn’t definitively conclude that the “paper courses” in the department of African and Afro-American studies had been designed and offered as an effort to benefit athletes alone. Thus, according to the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, which adjudicates allegations of wrongdoing, the courses did not violate the group’s rules.

The university aggressively fought the NCAA’s efforts to assert its authority in this case, spending roughly $18 million on legal and other fees. The NCAA’s enforcement division, which essentially acts as the prosecutor in infractions cases, had charged North Carolina with “lack of institutional control” and “failure to monitor” its athletes’ academic courses, among the most serious charges in the associations’ rule book. But the infractions committee said it could not reach those findings because it did not have evidence to prove the underlying charges of awarding “extra benefits” to athletes.

Here is the reaction of Rick DIguette, a local writer who has been a college instructor.

By Rick Diguette

A couple of weeks ago the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions gave the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill the ultimate “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

The principal allegation in the case against UNC-Chapel Hill was that to maintain athletic eligibility, student athletes enrolled in fraudulent classes, aka “paper courses,” requiring them to do virtually nothing to earn academic credit. The NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions justified its ruling, however, by finding that because non-athletes comprised 52.4 percent of these students, the wrongdoing clearly fell outside its jurisdiction and therefore the athletic program could not be sanctioned.

In other words, “Poof!”

The ruling surprised almost everyone following this case, including everyone now teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill; every UNC-Chapel Hill administrator, student, and staff member, including the guys who cut the grass, trim hedges, and spend endless hours noisily blowing things around; every resident of Chapel Hill; every resident of North Carolina; and almost every resident of every other state in the country with any interest in college athletics.

Rick Diguette

The only people not surprised by the ruling were members of the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions and its management —  Joel McGormley (Managing Director), Ship Cooper (Director), Jim Ellsworth, Matt Mikrut, Heather McVeigh and Ken Kleppe (Associate Directors), and Evelyn Gross and Cindy McKinney (Assistant Coordinators). If you, like me, find this ruling difficult to fathom and/or stomach, feel free to contact the NCAA leadership.

Carol Folt, Chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, called the ruling a “correct—and fair—outcome.” Feel free to contact her as well.

It is safe to assume the non-athletes enrolled in these fraudulent classes learned about their existence from (1) student athletes, (2) friends of student athletes, (3) friends of friends of student athletes, (4) friends of friends of friends of student athletes, (5) unscrupulous academic advisors, (6) unscrupulous professors, (7) unscrupulous academic department secretaries, (8) other unscrupulous people on the payroll at UNC-Chapel Hill, or (9), the guy dressed from head to toe in Carolina blue who walks around the UNC-Chapel Hill campus advertising fraudulent classes with a bullhorn.

The fact that only about 3,100 students at UNC-Chapel Hill signed up for these fraudulent classes over the past 20 years is either something of a miracle or, as I would prefer to think, a testament to the character of the UNC-Chapel Hill student body. When given an opportunity to cheat, to get something for nothing, they declined the offer and soldiered on.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe the existence of these classes was kept so quiet, so on the down low, that only students who look to cheat 24/7 found out about them.

In any event, what is likely to happen now that the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions has effectively whitewashed 20 years of academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill?  How will other Division I schools react?

I’m betting the memo has already been circulated at every one of those schools and what it says, in so many words, is that fraudulent classes are OK just as long as 50.1 percent of the students enrolled in those classes are non-athletes.

Or in other words, “Game, set, match.”

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

23 comments
Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

I would wager that the vast majority of colleges with division 1A  football and/or basketball athletic programs are engaged in academic fraud.  Those of us who have been around for a while remember the Jan Kemp allegations of the 80's at UGA.  I seem to recall the UGA basketball program had a similar academic fraud process more recently.  The fact remains, there is too much money exchanging hands at this level.  With head coaches making multi-million dollar  salaries and tv, ticket, and merchandising bringing in tens of millions of dollars, these coaches are going to do what it takes to keep their elite athletes on campus - academics be damned.

You usually don't hear about academic fraud related to a college baseball program.  Why?  Because Major League Baseball has a minor league program that provides the elite athlete / poor student an alternative method to get into the league.

I really wish the student athlete would have to apply and get accepted to the university under the same process as every other student on campus.  That is the only way you are going to stop this kind on nonsense.  Never going to happen.  Too many people making too much money. 

davidg32
davidg32

Sure did.  And not only did they give UNC a complete pass, they also laid out the blueprint for every school to stick all its athletes in bozo classes:  Just ensure that there are some non-athlete students in there, too, and you can pretend that it's a real college class.  Who cares if it's just those "General Studies" or "Cultural History" or "Theory of Bowling" joke subjects.  Slap 'em in there, don't confuse 'em by expecting them to think, and keep 'em eligible! 

Lexi3
Lexi3

The NCAA is impotent to do real police work. Instead, they spend their energy bullying small colleges into changing their mascot names when the panty waist administrators are offended by their imaginary associations. 

Arete
Arete

Maureen Downey--shame on you for posting an article of such astounding ignorance.  Right, everyone was surprised by this decision.  Jay Bilas, who played basketball at Duke and is a lawyer, so maybe knows a little about this topic, said the investigation was a total waste of time by the NCAA.  He wasn't surprised by the outcome.  And the classes weren't fraudulent.  They were independent study courses that required a 25-page paper to pass.  A common occurrence at most Universities.  (I took such a course when I was in college; it certainly wasn't fraudulent.) The problems were who was grading the papers and improper oversight--SACS concerns, not those of the NCAA.  The NCAA decision was very unsurprising to those with actual knowledge of the circumstances.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Arete The NCAA review panel noted that UNC itself had called the courses fraudulent in 2014:

As Inside Higher Ed noted:

The report also criticizes UNC officials for shifting their views about whether what occurred there was academic fraud, noting that the university acknowledged that misconduct had occurred upon release of the law firm's 2014 report (and said as much to the accrediting agency), but then argued to the contrary during the NCAA's infractions process, when such a concession might have opened it to significant penalties. 

Among other things, the panel notes that the university contended that its use of the phrase "academic fraud" was a typographical error.

"The panel is troubled by UNC's shifting positions … depending on the audience," the report states.

The report goes on to state that its members generally believe that UNC athletes benefited from the wrongdoing in a way that the NCAA would normally seek to punish. "It is more likely than not that student athletes received fraudulent credit by the common understanding of what that term means. It is also more likely than not that UNC personnel used the courses to purposely obtain and maintain student athletes' eligibility" -- exactly the type of behavior that NCAA rules are designed to prevent and punish.

If you need a reminder of what UNC said in 2014 when it released its own findings on the classes, here is the New York Times story on the report:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It was November 2009, and alarm was spreading among the academic counselors charged with bolstering the grades of football players at the University of North Carolina. For years the players and others had been receiving A’s and B’s in nonexistent classes in the African studies department, but the administrator who had set up and run the fake classes had just retired, taking all those easy grades with her.

The counselors convened a meeting of the university’s football coaches, using a PowerPoint presentation to drive home the notion that the classes “had played a large role in keeping underprepared and/or unmotivated players eligible to play,” according to a report released by the university on Wednesday.

“We put them in classes that met degree requirements in which ... they didn’t go to class ... they didn’t have to take notes, have to stay awake ... they didn’t have to meet with professors ... they didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material,” a slide in the presentation said. “THESE NO LONGER EXIST!”

Wednesday’s report, prepared by Kenneth L. Wainstein, a former general counsel at the F.B.I. and now a partner at the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, found that between 1993 and 2011, two employees in the university’s African and Afro-American studies department presided over what was essentially a “shadow curriculum” designed to help struggling students — many of them Tar Heels athletes — stay afloat.

It is the latest in a series of investigations into the scandal, which first came to public attention three years ago. The revelations have cast a decidedly unflattering light on the university, which has long boasted of its ability to maintain high academic standards while running a top-flight sports program. Until now, the university has emphasized that the scandal was purely academic. On Wednesday, it acknowledged for the first time that it was also athletic, with members of sports teams being steered into and benefiting disproportionately from the fraudulent classes.

Read the full story here:https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/23/sports/university-of-north-carolina-investigation-reveals-shadow-curriculum-to-help-athletes.html?_r=0

JasonLago
JasonLago

NCAA basically said it’s okay for athletes to get passed along in sham classes, just be sure to put some tuition paying students in the class and it is okay. All schools will be doing this in two years

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

What a crock! Free Jackson and Okogie!

John Knox
John Knox

Contact Belle Wheelan at SACS. That organization is no longer functioning as it should. Lapdog, not watchdog.

Another comment
Another comment

Every NCAA Division I school has its selected Major! GA Tech has History! The College I went to has Ag Econ.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

Wow this makes me so angry. I am not surprised given the corruption and sheer horribleness of the NCAA (Penn State and UNC alumni)

kaelyn
kaelyn

Did anyone think there would actually be any real consequences? The culture supports pampering and excusing the behavior of high performing athletes, starting at a very young age. High school teachers are routinely told they cannot give failing grades to football players. Of course, at the college level, this practice continues.

Thirty years ago I remember taking sophomore English with several of the school’s football players (large division one school known for its sports programs). The professor named one of the players and told him, if he wanted to play in the game that weekend, he had to pass the test we were about to take. She then left the room. The football player then went to sit next to another student who pretty much let him copy his answers. Nobody said a word because it was apparently known to everyone except me that that was just how things worked. That player was excellent on the field, but dumb as a doorknob. He was injured as a junior and ended up flunking out after he no longer warranted special treatment.

Too much money exchanges hands in college athletics for things to ever change. Pretty sad.

immigrant
immigrant

"college" football and basketball is largely an oxymoron

Re Al A T
Re Al A T

This decision was a complete whitewash/black wash. A major university cheats repeatedly and then is found not guilty of any offenses and is allowed to walk away. Justice is dead and cheating and criminality are acceptable? Nothing in society has any shame!

knight490
knight490

@Re Al A T The university was sanctioned by the body that gives its accreditation, so to say "found not guilty of any offenses and is allowed to walk away" is not accurate.  As this was an academic scandal, not an athletic one, it was wholly appropriate that the academic regulator, not the athletic one, handed down the punishment.

UNC81
UNC81

The only mistakes that the University made during the investigation phase was to cooperate with the NCAA in the early portions and to yield to the tremendous pressure from the media. The initial investigation included a reasonable investigation led by a former Governor, who was a former Davidson professor. The conclusions concerning the University’s regrettable actions and inactions proved to be write on target in its conclusions that this was an academic scandal, period. When a newspaper seemed to go “all in”, the University caved and started a saga with another self-investigation by a former federal prosecutor that was flawed in many ways. This provided the smoke that spurred the haters of the University on. The University should have stood it’s ground after the initial investigations.

When it became clear that the enemies of the University were not going to get what they desired most, sanctions against the men’s basketball program, it started a period of overreaching and even persecution. This was contrary to the NCAA policies that did not permit the organization to fully enter in judging the academic components of a University. This was reportedly confirmed by member schools during the period of this saga. SACS’ investigation was appropriate and concluded with very harsh and even unprecedented penalties for a major Tier 1 research university. The NCAA and other investigations should have stopped at that point.

It was the third LOI that shows the extent of the zeal for a hide despite the rules and even precedence. Instead of appropriately dropping the case or trying to find a compromise, the Committee doubled-down and sealed its fate. Perhaps it was the Committee members with legal backgrounds who finally recognized that the conclusion of the lack of jurisdiction was the only conclusion. I wish that the University could file for “legal” and other fees.

Speaking as an alumnus and a professional school faculty member and past administrator, I am very disturbed about the sad events at the University. There is no excuse. Administrators should have found the problems early and taken decisive actions. Those involved should have been removed. The African American Studies department should have been disbanded; and it’s faculty and curriculum should have been merged with other appropriate departments, some of which rank among the very top programs in the U.S. Political correctness has prevented that needed action. The athletic teams should have been required to recruit players with comparable academic qualifications as the general student body. The painful loss of reputation and recruiting difficulties in basketball and football are not adequate.

The bottom line is that the correct NCAA decision was made. Others should get over this. This particularly applies to the media.

redweather
redweather

@UNC81 The enemies of UNC-Chapel Hill? You can't count me as one. What I'm an enemy of is the fact that UNC-Chapel Hill allowed this to go on for at least 18 years, and that the NCAA bought the UNC-Chapel Hill argument that because non-athletes took the classes this wasn't an athletics dept. infraction. Totally bogus.

RealLurker
RealLurker

@UNC81 "SACS’ investigation was appropriate and concluded with very harsh and even unprecedented penalties for a major Tier 1 research university"


What penalties(plural) were enacted?  Which of those penalties(plural) were unprecedented?  A marjor "Tier 1" research University had a fake department, gave fraudulent credits, and awarded degrees to students who had not received enough legitimate credits to graduate for 18 years.  SACS only gave one punishment(singular), and that punishment did absolutely nothing to that University(sic.).

RealLurker
RealLurker

So why is it a big deal that the NCAA said that the school was committing academic fraud and not the athletic department?


The bigger question is why SACS did very little against an academic institution that they accredited for those 18 years that the fake department and fake classes were under way.  Sports aside, how can you have confidence in a University that allows or doesn't know that this is going on in their academic system for 18 years?  How can you have confidence in SACS accreditation if they approve of a school that allows this to go on for 18 years, and once they find out that it had been going on don't do much about it?


Shame on UNC.  Shame on SACS.

David Emory Stooksbury
David Emory Stooksbury

I think this is a SACS issue. My understanding that the majority of the students taking these fake courses were not athletes.