The University of North Carolina’s response to the NCAA’s charges related to phony classes for athletes is an attempt to duck a punch. UNC claims the sports governing body has no jurisdiction regarding the quality or integrity of classes. That, the university says, is the province of UNC’s accrediting agency, not the NCAA.
But on another level, the university’s argument is much more of a confrontation than an evasion. The university is testing the NCAA’s will and its powers. The outcome could undermine the governing body at a time when college football and basketball are at a turning point regarding the treatment of athletes and the role of the NCAA.
Paul Haagen, a Duke law professor and co-director of Duke’s Center for Sports Law and Policy, says UNC’s challenge to the NCAA’s jurisdiction has taken college sports governance into “seriously uncharted territory.”
Haagen thinks UNC is correct to assert that the NCAA has no business assessing whether a professor’s course is sufficiently rigorous. That, he says, must be determined by the university and its accrediting agency. But this case, he notes, has an added twist: What if the courses at issue were not courses by any academic standard? Thus the issue becomes not the quality of the courses, but the reality of them, and whether the athletes who enrolled in fictional classes were by default fictional students and therefore ineligible to play.
“This is the first time the NCAA has had to face this problem,” Haagen says.
The NCAA knows how to handle cases of special benefits to athletes even in the academic realm. But this isn’t a matter of a tutor writing athletes’ papers or of a professor changing a grade or being pressured to pass an athlete. This is a system of classes within the African-American studies department that enrolled 3,100 students over the years, half of them athletes.
“This is a different problem,” Haagen says, and an unprecedented issue. It raises questions, he says, about “how aggressively the NCAA will police its responsibility for integrity.”
There’s more involved than legal issues. This is a battle over image. UNC wants to avoid the stigma of major sanctions, perhaps including the forfeiture of a national men’s basketball title. The NCAA wants to avoid looking weak or the perception that it has given a break to a university whose men’s basketball program has as recently as this year helped drive up the TV ratings of the NCAA’s cash cow, its annual basketball tournament.
The NCAA is in a difficult position. Its image is already bruised by charges of selective enforcement and hypocrisy regarding the huge sums it and its member schools make off the efforts of unpaid athletes. Some athletes may not even be getting their supposed compensation – a free education – and those in contact sports may be risking concussion-related, lifetime brain injuries.
The NCAA doesn’t have the power of a government body like a congressional committee or a regulatory agency. It operates at the will and the whim of its members. The richest and most influential member schools – and some college athletes who are calling for pay – are chafing at the NCAA’s rules as schools realign conferences to gain more TV money and move closer to being the minor leagues of professional sports.
“The NCAA is not at its strongest right now,” Haagen says.
That weakness means the NCAA is less likely to drop the hammer on a powerful member like UNC.
If the NCAA avoids citing UNC for lack of institutional control – the most serious alleged violation – and offers milder sanctions, Haagen expects “everybody to back away.”
If the NCAA chooses to impose harsh sanctions, UNC may resist, perhaps even go to court. In that event, Haagen says, “We’re going to find out how much power the NCAA really has, and I think that’s an open question.”
However, if UNC were to take the NCAA to court, it would be putting itself in jeopardy. In a trial setting, UNC records would be subject to discovery, and coaches and administrators may have to testify under oath. That’s a path UNC is unlikely to want to take.
UNC and the NCAA face a confrontation in which image and authority are at stake. How it is resolved will reverberate well beyond Chapel Hill and NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. It could change the governance and the future of college sports.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, or firstname.lastname@example.org