The attorney for the former UNC-Chapel Hill administrative secretary who created scores of bogus classes that disproportionately provided high grades for athletes is seeking to toss out the NCAA’s latest notice of allegations.
In two letters that were sent recently to NCAA enforcement officials and provided to The News & Observer on Tuesday evening, attorney Elliot Abrams contends the NCAA’s enforcement staff rushed its third and latest notice of allegations after being “pressured” by the infractions committee to come up with a tougher version.
Abrams also contends the chairman of the infractions committee, Greg Sankey, has a conflict of interest and should recuse himself from hearing the case. Sankey is commissioner of the SEC, a rival “Power 5” conference of the ACC.
Some background: The NCAA issued the third notice in early December after the infractions committee conducted a rare procedural hearing to consider UNC’s due process arguments that the long-running academic scandal should not be taken up by the NCAA.
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The committee rejected those arguments, which included claims that academic fraud determinations are not the NCAA’s business and that the association had taken a pass on investigating the bogus classes in 2011. That’s when The N&O’s reporting exposed the classes.
At that time, the NCAA was in the process of scheduling an infractions hearing involving allegations within UNC’s football program of improper perks from agents and impermissible academic help from a tutor.
The infractions committee sanctioned UNC’s football program over those allegations in early 2012, but didn’t hear evidence about the bogus classes. It wasn’t until two years later, amid a more expansive investigation by Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor hired by UNC, that the NCAA opened a new probe into the bogus classes.
Since then, the NCAA’s enforcement staff has issued three notices of allegations. The first two only had one allegation against Deborah Crowder, the former administrative secretary in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies who created many of the classes. They alleged she had failed to cooperate with the investigation.
But after the procedural hearing, the infractions committee advised the NCAA’s enforcement staff in a letter that it had more leeway to consider academic issues that affected athletes’ eligibility. Eleven days later, the enforcement staff issued a third notice that is much tougher than the first two and added an unethical conduct charge against Crowder and her boss, former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro.
The third notice alleges the bogus classes they created provided impermissible academic benefits for athletes, particularly football and men’s basketball players.
“The Third Notice of Allegations was brought without the procedural protections the NCAA utilizes to ensure the accuracy of allegations,” Abrams said in one of the letters. “It was instead the product of pressure from the hearing panel.”
His letter also suggests that Crowder may not agree to an interview by the NCAA’s enforcement staff. Last month, Abrams released an affidavit from Crowder in which she said the classes she created and graded were legitimate, and that she had not intended to particularly help athletes.
Numerous emails in the case show Crowder’s support of UNC athletics, particularly men’s basketball, and her efforts to help athletes enroll into the bogus classes.
The bogus class scheme ran for at least 18 years, Wainstein’s report found. More than 3,100 students took at least one, and roughly half of them were athletes, who make up 4 percent of the student body. Athletes also accounted for more than half of the students who took significant numbers of bogus classes.
Crowder, who retired in 2009, was not a professor and the classes she created had no instruction. She had a bachelor’s degree in English from UNC.
Abrams said in the letter the enforcement staff had given Crowder until Friday of this week to sit down for an interview. But he said the enforcement staff’s mechanism for providing access to its case files – a secure website that doesn’t allow for printing or saving documents – creates an unfair advantage for investigators who would be questioning her.
“This feature allows the NCAA to anticipate potential defenses and gives the NCAA a tremendous unfair advantage in the infractions process,” Abrams said.
Conflict for Sankey?
Abrams’ second letter contends Sankey should not hear the case because of his tenure as an SEC official. Abrams said part of his defense would draw from an independent study scandal at Auburn University in 2006, an SEC member school.
The NCAA didn’t hit Auburn with serious sanctions in that case, which involved a professor creating more than 250 independent studies classes in one academic year.
Auburn contended the classes were legitimate, with a professor running them and providing instruction.
UNC’s classes were found to be fraudulent by the commission that accredits the university. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges placed UNC on a year’s probation for violating several standards, including oversight of college athletics.
Abrams noted in his letter that Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, and Luke DeCock, an N&O sports columnist, have said Sankey’s involvement was a conflict of interest. The infractions committee has released a statement saying it has followed NCAA rules.
Those rules prohibit infractions committee members from handling a case “if he or she is directly connected with an institution under investigation or if he or she has a personal, professional or institutional affiliation that may create the appearance of partiality.”
In the case against UNC’s football program, the infractions committee was led by Britton Banowsky, who was commissioner of Conference USA, which then included East Carolina University. The conference has fought to remain competitive as the SEC, ACC and other Power 5 conferences have asserted more control over big money college sports.
UNC has yet to respond to the third notice of allegations. Last month, the NCAA waived a deadline for UNC to respond as the enforcement staff sought to interview Crowder.