The NCAA's clean bill for UNC brings howls

Some national sports analysts are in disbelief over the announcement

dkane@newsobserver.comSeptember 2, 2012 

  • What they’re saying: “NCAA MAKES IT UP AS IT GOES ALONG. The NCAA finds pretty much whatever it wants to find ... or not find.” – Bruce Feldman, college football columnist for CBSSports.com “I don’t understand why Penn State has to spend four years in the NCAA’s intensive care unit for the abhorrent actions of a few former employees, while North Carolina gets a pass for its rampant academic fraud.” – Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated columnist “Any statement that includes the words ‘NCAA finds’ should be treated with great skepticism at this point I think,” – fan on the website statefansnation.com.

The NCAA’s position that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has done nothing wrong by offering bogus classes that helped athletes maintain their eligibility has spurred a wave of skepticism from national sportswriters and others who follow college sports.

“The NCAA concludes no violations in UNC academic scandal,” tweeted Stewart Mandel, a college football writer for Sports Illustrated’s website. “This actually happened.”

Several said the announcement last Friday has given universities looking to gain the advantage in the big-money sports of football and basketball a license to bend the rules. .

Bruce Feldman, a college football columnist for CBSSports.com, said in a blog post the announcement shows that the “NCAA MAKES IT UP AS IT GOES ALONG. The NCAA finds pretty much whatever it wants to find ... or not find.”

Jay Bilas, ESPN analyst and former Duke basketball player, said on Twitter: “And the NCAA wonders why it’s a laughingstock? Cue NCAA Prez to lecture on integrity, and who’s ‘in charge.’ ”

Neither UNC-CH officials nor the NCAA offered an explanation for the determination. UNC-CH officials announced the news Friday morning ahead of a holiday weekend. The NCAA did not issue a statement, but provided a brief confirmation of UNC’s announcement later in the day.

UNC-CH has become embroiled in an investigation into academic fraud after The News & Observer obtained a partial transcript of former football defensive standout Marvin Austin, who was kicked off the team in 2010 after he was found to have accepted improper financial benefits from a sports agent. That NCAA investigation found others also received improper financial benefits, and a tutor was found to have provided improper help on college papers.

Austin’s transcript, which The N&O published Aug. 21, 2011, showed he had been allowed to take an upper-level African studies class before he took his full slate of classes as a freshman. He received a B-plus in the class, taught by the African studies department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, before he had taken remedial writing as a first-semester freshman.

UNC-CH’s statement Friday makes no mention of this. The university said it notified the NCAA of “potential academic issues involving student-athletes in African and Afro-American Studies courses” on Aug. 24, 2011 – three days later.

The statement said an NCAA enforcement staff member later visited Chapel Hill “several times in the fall” to take part in the investigation.

According to the statement, the NCAA has not visited the university since, but has relied upon the university’s information to make the determination that no violations have occurred.

In May, UNC officials announced that an internal investigation found that Nyang’oro and a former department manager, Deborah Crowder, were involved in the creation of dozens of classes that had little or no instruction, including the class taken by Austin, who now plays for the New York Giants. Nyang’oro was directly tied to all but nine of the 54 bogus classes found over a four-year period that began in summer 2007. The investigation also found little accountability for independent studies offered to students in which no class time is required.

Since then, public records requests filed by the N&O showed that athletes accounted for nearly two-thirds of the enrollments in the bogus classes, with football players accounting for more than a third of the enrollments. Some of the classes had nothing but athletes enrolled; two had nothing but a single basketball player.

The scandal attracted significant national attention when a second transcript emerged. It belongs to one of the university’s most popular star athletes, Julius Peppers, who played both football and basketball at UNC-CH, and is now an All-Pro defensive end for the Chicago Bears.

Three weeks ago, the N&O found a test transcript on UNC’s website that appeared to be that of an athlete who attended the university from 1998 to 2001, but UNC-CH officials refused to check academic records to make sure it was fake. A day after the N&O published the transcript, rival N.C. State University fans examined the Web address and tracked it back to a related weblink that showed Peppers’ actual transcript.

The transcript showed that Peppers had done poorly in many classes, but received grades of B or better in several courses that several years later were found to be suspect in the internal investigation. For example, Peppers was allowed to take an independent studies class the summer after his freshman year, a period in which he received two D-pluses, two Ds, an F, a C and a B.

Independent studies are typically offered to students who have shown the study and organizational skills to accomplish a research project, such as a paper, on their own.

Those classes, as his transcript showed, kept Peppers eligible to compete in football and basketball.

The transcript suggests that the bogus classes and poorly supervised independent studies stretch back into the 1990s. Nyang’oro, who was forced into retirement in July, had been chairman of the African studies department since 1992.

Peppers has not given any interviews regarding the transcript, but in a statement released by his agent, Carl Carey Jr., Peppers said the transcript was his, but he committed no academic fraud as it related to his transcript.

UNC-CH and NCAA officials also have not commented on Peppers’ transcript as it related to the academic fraud investigation. On Thursday, Chancellor Holden Thorp explained to a UNC Board of Governors panel how the transcript became public, but offered no explanation for the odd configuration of Peppers’ academic record.

The panel was assembled to review the university’s academic fraud investigation. After Peppers’ transcript surfaced, Thorp announced an additional investigation, led by former Gov. Jim Martin, to determine whether additional academic irregularities occurred.

UNC-CH officials first told the public about their internal investigation on Sept. 1, 2011. At the time, the university offered few details other than to say there were “academic irregularities” in the department that involved athletes and nonathletes.

Since then, the university has cited the fact that there were also nonathletes enrolled in the classes to contend that this was not a matter for the NCAA. A former head of the NCAA’s infractions committee, Josephine Potuto, told the N&O in an interview two months ago that the NCAA does not get involved in cases in which the academic fraud was not intended to specifically benefit athletes.

But Thorp recently told the UNC BOG panel that the university does not know the motive behind Nyang’oro’s and Crowder’s actions, while much of the evidence that has surfaced to date shows an intent to assist athletes. In one summer 2011 class, records obtained by the N&O show that Nyang’oro created the class two days before the semester began and it immediately filled with football players. A faculty report also said evidence suggests academic counselors assigned to the athletes steered them to the classes, and Crowder, the former departmental manager, had close ties to the athletic department and particularly the men’s basketball team.

If the intent of the no-show classes and independent studies were to keep athletes eligible, the university could face major sanctions that could potentially bring down championship banners for its men’s basketball team. The team won the NCAA tournament in 2005 and 2009.

Basketball is where the NCAA makes the lion share of its revenues. A nonprofit association, its most recently available tax return on Guidestar.org shows nearly all of its $740 million in revenues came from the nationally-televised basketball tournament.

Hence, there is concern that what happened Friday was the NCAA protecting a celebrated, lucrative basketball program.

“I don’t know how the NCAA can justify this,” wrote Michael Rosenberg, another Sports Illustrated columnist. “I don’t understand why Penn State has to spend four years in the NCAA’s intensive-care-unit for the abhorrent actions of a few former employees, while North Carolina gets a pass for its rampant academic fraud.”

Brian Barbour, a blogger on Tar Heel Blog, writes that, according to NCAA rules and available information, no action against UNC is appropriate. He criticizes those in the media for failing to write a piece the ties the rules to the details of this case.

“Show me a well thought out piece with actual rules cited and real information from the NCAA or former NCAA staff members then I will be glad to listen,” he writes. “Otherwise I can do without the faux rage, excessive whining and incessant insinuations that prove nothing.”

Staff writer J.N. Miller contributed to this report.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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