Greg Sankey, the Southeastern Conference commissioner who is also the chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, has refused a request that he recuse himself from the ongoing NCAA investigation into UNC-Chapel Hill, the Associated Press reported on Friday.
According to the AP, Sankey in a letter to Deborah Crowder’s lawyer denied the lawyer’s request that Sankey recuse himself out of concerns about a conflict of interest. Sankey is the SEC commissioner while UNC is one of the founding members of the ACC, one of the SEC’s rival conferences.
Crowder, meanwhile, is the former UNC administrative assistant who is considered one of the architects of a long-running scheme of African- and Afro-American Studies courses that UNC’s accrediting body considered to be fraudulent.
In Sankey’s letter, obtained by the AP, he wrote that the infractions committee “would fairly decide this case. The panel, including me, will hear and decide this case based on the case record and the membership’s bylaws.”
Since June 2014 the NCAA Enforcement Staff has been investigating to what degree the bogus African Studies courses benefited athletes, including men’s basketball and football players, over a range of years. The NCAA case has stalled several times, most recently in mid-March.
UNC was due to respond on March 13 to the NCAA’s third Notice of Allegations (NOA) in the case. Days before, though, Crowder’s attorney, Elliot Abrams, released an affidavit in which Crowder defended the legitimacy of the AFAM courses at the heart of the case.
In her affidavit, Crowder described the classes as “customized educational opportunities for students to solve problems created by the institutional bureaucracy.” At first the classes were designed as independent studies courses that had no professor oversight, never met and only required a written paper.
Later, Crowder disguised those independent studies classes as lecture courses that still never met and included little to no instruction. The papers the classes required resulted in unusually high grades.
UNC athletes, who account for about 5 percent of undergraduate enrollments, represented nearly half of the 3,100 students who enrolled in the classes between 1993 and 2011. Crowder retired from UNC in 2009, and has refused to speak with NCAA investigators.
In a letter to the NCAA last month, Abrams wrote that Crowder would “potentially” cooperate with the NCAA investigation. In Sankey’s letter that the AP obtained, meanwhile, Sankey wrote that NCAA investigators would interview Crowder in the coming weeks.
Sankey’s letter was dated April 14. It was sent, according to the AP, to all parties involved in the UNC investigation. Sankey’s letter came in response to one that Abrams wrote to NCAA officials, arguing that Sankey should recuse himself from the case because of a conflict of interest.
In that letter to the NCAA, Abrams also contended that Sankey “pressured” the NCAA Enforcement Staff into issuing the third NOA, which is considered the harshest of the three NOAs UNC has received.
UNC received its first NOA in this case, which grew out of another NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits and academic misconduct within the football program, on May 20, 2015. It was days away from the deadline to respond to it when the university submitted new information to the NCAA.
The NCAA Enforcement Staff sent its second NOA to UNC on April 25, 2016. UNC responded on Aug. 1, 2016, and then appeared before a special committee on infractions hearing that Sankey presided over.
Sankey then encouraged the enforcement staff to reevaluate how it had framed the allegations. That led to the third NOA, which UNC received on Dec. 3, 2016. UNC faces five level one allegations, which are ones the NCAA considers the most serious.
Among them are an allegation of lack of institutional control, and an allegation of providing impermissible academic benefits to athletes, including men’s basketball and football players. UNC has argued, among other things, that the NCAA has no jurisdiction over the quality of course instruction.
The AP, citing Sankey’s most recent letter, reported that UNC must now respond to the third NOA by May 16. If it does respond by then, it would represent about a two-month delay from when UNC was originally scheduled to respond.