UNC-Chapel Hill officials were hopeful that the release of a report by former Gov. Jim Martin represented an end to uncertainty about the athletics program.
They sent a copy of the report to the NCAA, hoping collegiate sports’ governing body would agree.
Still, there was tension Thursday about whether the NCAA might relaunch an investigation, as several experts with deep knowledge of the NCAA and its rules suggested a fresh athletics-related inquiry would be appropriate.
NCAA officials have said only that they are monitoring developments at UNC amid reports of academic irregularities.
“I don’t have any way of knowing,” Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, said when asked what he thought the NCAA might do in the wake of the Martin report. “It showed the same irregularities that went back further, but it didn’t show that there was anything directly related to athletics. Certainly there were student-athletes involved in classes as were a lot of other groups.”
Martin’s report said that deep problems with irregular classes and unauthorized grade changes in the African studies department that his report outlined “was not an athletic scandal.”
David Ridpath isn’t so sure. Ridpath, an Ohio University professor, a former university compliance officer and an expert in litigation involving college sports issues, wrote in an email Thursday that the NCAA’s inaction at UNC has been “unconscionable.”
Since May, when UNC released the results of an internal investigation that identified 54 suspect African studies classes, many of which were filled with athletes who might have benefited from unauthorized grade changes and lax academic requirements, there has been no indication that the NCAA would act.
“I go back to the ‘but for’ test,” Ridpath wrote in an email. “This fraud would not have happened but for the involvement of athletics and the benefits to its high-profile sports.
“The fact that other students are involved is irrelevant in my view because the intended beneficiaries were the athletes, many of whom who were not prepared to do college level work.”
Michael Buckner, a Florida lawyer who advises universities in NCAA probes, said that he agrees with Martin that it is an academic scandal foremost, but wrote in an email that “if student-athletes are involved in any academic-fraud, then NCAA legislation may be implicated.”
He said that NCAA rules are broken if an athlete is kept eligible through any type of academic fraud.
“The NCAA may request specific information on the involvement of student-athletes in the illicit activities,” he said.
Martin’s work didn’t show how many unauthorized grade changes, for example, benefitted athletes. But he said athletes and nonathletes were helped by the years of “abuse” in the department.
UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp declined to address whether UNC has already examined whether any of its athletes were kept eligible as a result of the grade changes and other misconduct. He would only say that Martin’s report has been sent to the NCAA.
Ridpath and Buckner were two of several experts The News & Observer asked to evaluate the Martin report.
Most expressed doubt that the NCAA would take action. All said the agency should look deeper.
“The findings show that these ‘anomalies’ existed over a long period of time, covered basketball as well as football, was systematic and pervasive,” said Gerald Gurney, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the past president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. “I was also struck by the number of grade changes. Did the changes help to establish athletic eligibility?”
Dick Baddour, who preceded Cunningham as UNC’s athletic director, said he was hesitant to speculate on how the NCAA would react but that he didn’t expect the investigators to return.
“Given the thoroughness of it, it’s time to move on,” Baddour said. “I don’t expect them to raise additional issues.”