When a contingent of UNC officials, coaches and their lawyers arrived at a Nashville hotel conference room Wednesday to argue their case before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, the former secretary at the center of the academic-athletic scandal wasn’t among them.
Deborah Crowder had arrived 15 minutes earlier with her attorney, Elliot Abrams. They shook hands with an NCAA representative at a desk in front of the conference room. She gave a small smile as the representative put a band around her wrist identifying her as someone allowed into the hearing, which is closed to the public.
Those 15 minutes of space reflect the dynamic Crowder and UNC faced as the hearing started Wednesday morning. Their positions in many ways support each other’s arguments to fend off major violations of NCAA bylaws, but UNC can’t fully endorse what Crowder did.
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Crowder created scores of classes that had no instruction and that produced high grades for papers, igniting what became an 18-year shadow curriculum that scores of UNC athletes relied on to help them stay eligible to play.
But in her interview with the NCAA, Crowder insisted that the classes were available to all students and that she was simply trying to help everyone.
“To some extent, the school is in an interesting spot of what do you agree with her (on) and what do you disagree with her (on),” said Stuart Brown, a lawyer who specializes in NCAA matters. “And if you find her credible and sympathetic on subjects A, B and C, how persuasive is it if you find her not credible and not sympathetic on subjects D, E and F?”
This was Crowder’s first appearance in public after seeking to keep a low profile as the classes were exposed and public interest in the scandal grew. Reporters who went to her home south of Chapel Hill to seek an interview were told to leave or face trespassing charges.
She had retired from the university in 2009, setting off a panic among academic counselors on the football team who could no longer count on the classes to help players stay on the field.
Back to 1993
For much of the past six years since the scandal emerged, UNC officials castigated Crowder for creating the classes, which have been found to go as far back as 1993. But when Crowder released an affidavit challenging the NCAA’s allegation that she acted unethically in creating the classes and in giving athletes special access to them, UNC’s attorneys quickly incorporated her claims.
Crowder came forward in March, nearly two years after turning down the NCAA’s requests for cooperation in its investigation. That led to another delay so the NCAA could interview her.
“Ms. Crowder’s interview testimony provided valuable information that reinforces core factual points in her affidavit and the University’s Response to the Second Amended Notice of Allegations,” UNC’s attorneys said.
They cited herclaims that the courses were available to all students, that athletes didn’t receive preferential treatment and that she graded no differently than her boss, Julius Nyang’oro, who was chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies department. Nyang’oro has avoided the NCAA’s investigation and did not show up at the infractions hearing.
Crowder’s affidavit and interview didn’t impress the NCAA’s enforcement staff. Investigators viewed her late entry into the case as another effort to delay, and didn’t remove the charge against her for lack of cooperation.
In their most recent response, the enforcement staff cited enrollment numbers showing athletes making up nearly half of the enrollments in the classes, while they comprise 3 percent of the student body. UNC said the percentage of athletes in the classes was lower, saying the NCAA was including former athletes in its count.
The enforcement staff said Crowder let athletes into classes with no questions asked, while non-athletes had to get approval from their academic advisers.
“Crowder essentially equated a student caring for a parent with cancer to a student-athlete who needed to attend a team practice,” the NCAA staff wrote.
Why so late?
That difference in treatment is at the heart of the NCAA’s allegation that UNC violated a bylaw prohibiting extra benefits for athletes.
UNC contends that many of the extra benefits the NCAA asserts were provided to athletes by the counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes – such as submitting papers or requesting enrollments in certain classes – were acceptable practices.
Brown said UNC’s best course of action at the hearing is to steer it toward jurisdictional issues, such as its contention that the NCAA has no reach in academic matters. Getting into the nuts and bolts of the classes, which include evidence such as an email saying athletes only had to submit “middle-school” quality work, would be more troublesome for the university, he said.
Brown said he’s not surprised the enforcement staff rejected Crowder’s explanations. He said they are typically less inclined to believe an individual who is likely never to be involved in a subsequent case, as opposed to a university that will continue to have a relationship with the NCAA as a member.
Her late entry into the case is a hurdle for her and potentially for the university. Brown said the committee knows it gives her the benefit of seeing much of the NCAA’s case and then tailoring her response.
“The Committee on Infractions will want to explore why she delayed,” Brown said. “And there may be a totally valid reason for that, but they will want to explore that to the degree that they find her information credible.”
Staff writer Andrew Carter contributed.
Academic fraud, or not?
One charge missing in the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations is academic fraud. It’s known as bylaw 10.1(b): “Knowing involvement in arranging for fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts for a prospective or an enrolled student-athlete.”
The NCAA hasn’t explained why it didn’t make such an allegation, but throughout the back and forth between its investigators and UNC, the university has never characterized the classes as fraudulent. Aberrant, irregular, anomalous, yes, but not fraudulent.
UNC also argues that only universities have the right to make that call since the NCAA doesn’t delve into the content of courses. Some critics have argued the NCAA doesn’t need to make that call after the commission that accredits UNC found the courses lacked academic integrity and put it on a year’s probation.
The NCAA merely notes that UNC is not calling them fraudulent, but says the classes are still an NCAA matter because they were “irregular” and were disproportionately used to give athletes high grades with little work involved. As a result, the NCAA has defined them as extra benefits, avoiding the debate over how much it should get involved in academics.