As a U.S. congressman probes for answers to why the NCAA has not dug into the academic scandal at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the association is working on a “clarification” of its regulations as they relate to academic misconduct.
At least two NCAA committees in recent weeks have been focusing on when academic misconduct rises to the level that it requires NCAA investigation. Members of those committees say their work is not specific to the scandal at UNC, but they are aware of it.
“You can’t say that it’s not there and on people’s minds,” said Carolyn Callahan, an education professor at the University of Virginia and a member of the NCAA’s Division I Academic Cabinet. She said her committee has been working on the issue for two years.
Meanwhile, the NCAA’s Division I Legislative Council produced a report last week also seeking to clarify academic misconduct cases. According to council records, “significant confusion” exists on the issue.
“The current interpretation creates confusion regarding the type of academic misconduct that results in an NCAA violation and does not specify who determines whether academic misconduct in violation of NCAA rules has occurred,” a legislative council report said.
The NCAA so far has stayed out of the academic fraud case at UNC, despite numerous experts saying the circumstances at UNC appear to involve violations of NCAA regulations. The problems at UNC involve more than 200 suspected or confirmed lecture-style classes that never met and required only a paper at the end that typically received a high grade.
Athletes made up 45 percent of the enrollments, despite accounting for roughly 5 percent of the undergraduate population at UNC.
A question of intent
The NCAA’s ethical conduct standards say cases in which “knowing involvement in arranging for fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts for a prospective or an enrolled student-athlete” constitute a serious violation. But the NCAA has also had a hands-off policy in cases in which the fraud benefited athletes and nonathletes equally if it can’t be shown that those on the athletic side had a hand in creating or perpetuating the benefits.
NCAA President Mark Emmert cited that “intent” criteria 15 months ago. But he also noted that questions remained as to whether the fraud equally benefited athletes and nonathletes.
Records obtained by The News & Observer show academically challenged freshman athletes being steered to the classes. UNC officials have not produced examples in which that happened with freshman nonathletes.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, said he wants the NCAA to explain why it decided to stay out of the UNC case. If the organization doesn’t give him a satisfactory answer, he said he will seek an explanation at a committee hearing.
“Is the priority educating these young people?” Cardenas asked in an interview. “Or is the priority having the best teams so they can get the best exposure and then the next time they come up for a contract they can get an even bigger contract?”
NCAA officials had no comment on Cardenas’ efforts. In a statement last week, they said the clarification tells schools they have to report academic misconduct to the NCAA when a staff member arranges for an athlete to receive false academic credit, when athletes cheat academically or when an athlete competes while ineligible as the result of academic misconduct.
UNC officials have reported that the NCAA has not found evidence of violations connected to the academic fraud.
“Carolina is fully committed to both academic integrity and complying with all NCAA rules,” said Steve Kirschner, a spokesman for the UNC Athletic Department.
Looking for excuses?
It is unclear how the proposed clarification could alter how the NCAA handles academic misconduct cases. The Chronicle of Higher Education, which first reported on the effort, said the change could require NCAA involvement if a “high” number of athletes are involved in academic impropriety.
Two NCAA critics say the clarification efforts look more like the NCAA trying to find an excuse not to punish UNC by claiming the rules are murky, while telegraphing that similar cases down the road could face violations.
The critics – professors Gerald Gurney of the University of Oklahoma and David Ridpath of Ohio University – say under current regulations, UNC committed NCAA violations because counselors within the tutoring program steered athletes to the classes that they should have known were academically fraudulent. They also cited an email in which a tutoring program counselor requested a no-show Swahili language class be offered again.
“This just gives them cover and pushes themselves farther away from UNC,” said Ridpath, president-elect of The Drake Group, a faculty-led organization that seeks to eliminate academic corruption in college sports.