The NCAA and UNC-Chapel Hill spent countless hours investigating the improper money, perks and tutoring football players received, eventually levying sanctions that will cost the team a bowl opportunity and athletic scholarships.
But there’s little indication the NCAA is investigating another scandal that arguably paints a much darker picture: dozens of bogus classes largely attended by athletes that were offered by the longtime chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.
The NCAA has said practically nothing about the academic fraud. UNC-CH officials have said it does not constitute an NCAA violation because nonathletes also had been enrolled in the bogus classes and were not treated differently. They have consistently said the bogus classes were not hatched to keep athletes eligible to play.
If so, two academic officials who have served on NCAA committees say the fraud may not fall under the association’s purview.
“One would have to decide that there was special treatment afforded to student-athletes in order to find that there’s a violation,” said Josephine Potuto, a former chairwoman of the NCAA’s committee on infractions. “There are ways to do it. But it’s not easy. You can’t do it simply by saying, ‘Hey, there are a lot of student-athletes in this class, and everybody got an A.’ That’s not going to get you there.”
Similar cases elsewhere
Ken White is a Utah State University professor who led the NCAA committee that rejected former UNC-CH football player Michael McAdoo’s request to be reinstated after the NCAA’s investigation found that a tutor had provided improper help on a Swahili paper. It later turned out to be the first clue to the larger academic fraud.
White said universities have the autonomy to determine whether academic improprieties rise to the level of an NCAA violation.
“Each institution is in control of their own academic programs, and they have to make the determination as far as what was done, who did it, and what impact it has,” he said.
The NCAA, for example, did not get involved when the Ann Arbor News reported in a series in 2008 about a University of Michigan psychology professor who had taught 294 independent studies over a three-year period, with athletes taking up 85 percent of those courses. The university had defended the professor and the courses.
But the association hit Florida State University hard three years ago after a learning specialist and a tutor who worked with athletes had given them improper help, particularly in providing quiz answers for an online music course. Nonathletes also benefited because they also had access to those answers. The NCAA investigation cost the football team athletic scholarships and coach Bobby Bowden a dozen wins.
A case at Auburn University closely resembles what happened at UNC-CH. The NCAA found Auburn University committed minor violations – but not academic fraud – as a result of a sociology professor offering dozens of “directed-reading” courses that did not meet and involved little academic work.
Football players flocked to the classes, which pushed up their grade-point-averages, but nonathletes had taken them as well. The New York Times revealed the courses in 2006.
Telling the NCAA
It is unclear how much interaction UNC-CH has had with the NCAA about the fraud case. Nancy Davis, a university spokeswoman, said General Counsel Leslie Strohm called the NCAA on Aug. 24 after learning that one of the no-show classes was full of football players. Department Chairman Julius Nyang’oro had offered the class, AFAM 280, in the second summer semester of 2011.
But Davis said the university did not think a violation had occurred. Otherwise, she said, the notification would have been in writing. She declined to say what else Strohm may have told the NCAA.
That information was not shared at the time with The News & Observer, despite a written request Aug. 29 for records related to classes that did not meet and required only a term paper, and how many football and basketball players were enrolled in them.
It did not become public until last month, following additional N&O requests for a breakdown of athletic enrollments in the suspect classes and emails related to the AFAM 280 class.
Three weeks after Strohm’s call to the NCAA, the association visited the campus again, but the reason has yet to be disclosed. When university officials issued their internal investigation May 4, they sent a copy to the NCAA.
Asked for a response to the internal report that showed 54 bogus classes, NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn sent an email with a link to the press release announcing the sanctions levied from the previous investigation.
“Any additional questions,” she wrote, “should be directed to the university.”
But university officials have cited their discussions with NCAA in not talking about key aspects of the academic fraud case, such as how students got into the classes.
“I cannot talk to you about the NCAA piece of this,” Davis said.