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NCAA needs more authority in academic misconduct cases, reform group says

An NCAA reform group that is examining academic integrity policies says the association needs to strengthen its authority to identify and punish academic misconduct involving athletes.

The group’s 26-page report calls for adding language to the NCAA’s academic misconduct bylaw that would state: “An institution may be held accountable through the NCAA infractions process for activities or conduct that clearly demonstrates a disregard for academic integrity as it relates to student-athletes.”

“While such a bylaw would be triggered infrequently, it would help ensure that when the behavior of a member institution is grossly contrary to the NCAA’s academic mission and values, the NCAA infractions process would capture such conduct and penalize it accordingly,” the report said.

That change and others would give more clout to the NCAA’s infractions committee on academic misconduct matters at Division I schools such as Duke, N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill. It is intended to address cases in which university staff or officials committed the misconduct to help athletes stay eligible.

The report also calls for the NCAA to change another academic misconduct bylaw so that the infractions committee has more authority to determine whether a school offered impermissible academic benefits to athletes.

The report doesn’t mention any school by name, but its recommendations address issues that surfaced with the infraction committee’s handling of the academic and athletic scandal at UNC that involved more than 3,100 students over 18 years.

The NCAA released the report Wednesday after The News & Observer submitted a public records request for a copy from UNC-Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam, who is the chairman of the association’s Division I Presidential Forum. The report had been released to the forum at the NCAA’s annual convention last week.

The NCAA had initially declined to release the report.

“We are so early in this process we are trying to manage expectations,” said Michelle Hosick, an NCAA spokeswoman, in an email last week. (An earlier version misspelled Hosick’s name.)

The working group was led by Carol Cartwright, who also served on the infractions committee that handled the academic fraud case against UNC. Cartwright, a president emeritus of Bowling Green State and Kent State universities, is also a co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. That commission and a special NCAA commission led by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had also called for those reforms.

In an interview, Cartwright said the report wasn’t about any specific case.

“We were looking at the larger concerns that have been expressed over time about academic misconduct within the context of NCAA rules and fair competition,” she said.

But the UNC case looms large over the NCAA’s academic misconduct policies and bylaws.

The NCAA’s infractions committee found that while an academic secretary and department chairman at UNC had offered roughly 185 classes and hundreds of independent studies that had no instruction and offered a high grade for term papers, the classes did not break NCAA rules because the university said they weren’t fraudulent and were offered to the rest of the student body. Nearly half of the students were athletes, particularly in the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, a UNC-backed investigation found.

The infraction committee’s decision drew heavy criticism, and raised concerns that a precedent had been set preventing the NCAA from safeguarding educational opportunities for athletes. Many Division I schools make millions of dollars on those sports, but the NCAA has long opposed paying athletes, contending their compensation comes in the form of free college educations.

The report reflects this concern.

“Academic misconduct is particularly damaging, not only to the institution at which the violations occurred but also to the entire Association,” the report said. “Because the NCAA is predicated on being a higher education association, it is in all of our best interests to construct an academic integrity framework in a manner that reduces the likelihood of misbehavior.”

The working group said in the past, member schools reported potential academic misconduct to the NCAA and accepted violations that followed. But schools “became increasingly defensive about the damage the term ‘academic fraud’ caused their reputations, which led to tensions that posed challenges in the Committee on Infractions’ ability to adjudicate academic misconduct cases,” the report said.

That led to a policy change in 2014 that gave schools deference in determining academic misconduct that constituted an NCAA violation. But the change hindered the infractions committee in resolving academic misconduct and impermissible benefit cases.

The report noted that in 2016, the NCAA sought to clarify when academic misconduct became an NCAA matter, but the problems persisted.

“That may be because many, if not most, of these problems arise not from the student-athletes themselves but from the non-students who often have a vested interest in ensuring the student-athlete remains academically eligible to compete,” the report said. “While institutional policies regarding academic integrity must address all students, they may or may not relate to these other individuals who interact uniquely with student-athletes.”

The report’s five other recommendations include requiring all Division I universities have a “standing academic integrity oversight committee” that would report annually to the president or chancellor, and discussing with the six regional accrediting agencies the roles they and the NCAA play in handling academic misconduct matters. In August, the NCAA passed a new rule that views accrediting decisions as valid evidence for infractions cases.

That rule, too, spoke to the UNC case. UNC’s accreditor had put the university on probation in 2015 for violating several standards, including overall integrity and control over athletics. But UNC officials, during the infractions committee hearing in August 2017, contended UNC had not admitted to the accreditor that the classes constituted academic fraud.

Cartwright said the recommendations are likely to prompt more debate about where the NCAA’s mission of fair play and educational opportunity for athletes intersects with the universities’ need for academic freedom to offer classes that best educate students.

“If there were a clear cut answer you’d write a succinct rule and be done with it,” she said. “But there is no clear cut answer for these competing priorities, and the presidents and the governing board eventually will have to decide what side they want to come down on.”

The NCAA sent the report to all of its Division I members Wednesday. The presidential forum will collect feedback over the next several months and then offer its recommendations to the NCAA’s Division I Board of Governors, which has the authority to pass new rules for NCAA members. Cartwright said it likely wouldn’t be until 2020 before any such rules would take effect.

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