UNC scandal raised a call for NCAA academic reforms. Will they happen?

When NCAA leaders open their annual conference in Orlando on Wednesday, they will receive a set of academic integrity recommendations developed after an infractions committee chose not to punish UNC-Chapel Hill for placing hundreds of athletes in classes that had no instruction.

The recommendations come from a working group the NCAA set up in June, shortly after a commission led by Condoleezza Rice told NCAA leaders they needed to close two loopholes that can allow schools to escape sanctions for academic fraud. One loophole gives schools the jurisdiction to report academic fraud involving athletes on their campuses. The other can allow schools to escape sanctions because the misconduct involved all students.

UNC used both defenses in 2017 to avoid sanctions. When the NCAA adopted much of the Rice Commission’s recommendations in August, it did not address those loopholes. NCAA officials left them to the working group.

In October, leaders of the NCAA’s Division I schools spoke to the working group at a meeting in Winter Park, Fla. And in November, a chancellor on the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors who attended the meeting told North Carolina lawmakers that university leaders across the country want to give the NCAA the clout to prevent other schools from offering classes that had no instruction and offered high grades for a student’s work regardless of quality.

“What’s happened is most presidents think there ought to be absolute standards of academic integrity in the NCAA, which apply to student-athletes regardless of what’s going on with the non-student-athletes,” said Philip Dubois, UNC-Charlotte’s chancellor. “And so there’s a working group working on that now to see what that would look like, so that there’s certain minimum standards that every member institution in the NCAA would have with respect to academic integrity.”

Some examples might include a limit on how many independent studies athletes can take, he said, a change adopted at all UNC system schools in the wake of the scandal. Dubois spoke to a special legislative committee examining the treatment of college athletes.

The no-instruction classes at UNC began in 1993 and lasted until 2011. Three years later, an investigation led by Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official, estimated there were 1,350 independent studies that had no little to no faculty involvement and another 185 classes advertised as lecture-style that never met and had no instruction. Students were typically required to turn in written assignments, mostly term papers, that received high grades regardless of quality.

The NCAA’s infractions committee also sought to determine if UNC violated the association’s academic fraud bylaw. But UNC said the classes were legitimate under its rules at the time. When the committee noted that UNC had described them as academic fraud in a letter to its accreditor, the university’s representatives said that was a typo. The committee then said it couldn’t pursue the bylaw because NCAA rules give member schools the right to make the call on what constitutes academic fraud.

Critics blasted the committee’s ruling, saying it cleared a path for schools to create classes for athletes with little or no rigor that the NCAA couldn’t touch because they were open to all students.

It’s hard to know how far the working group will go with academic reforms. An NCAA press release after the meeting of Division I leaders in October reported several presidents didn’t want a “mandate” from the NCAA on academic misconduct.

UNC-Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam is chairman of the NCAA’s Presidential Forum, which includes academic leaders from each of the NCAA’s 32 Division I conferences. Its members were also at the meeting. He said he couldn’t discuss specifics.

“I can assure you that the 32 presidents and chancellors on the forum don’t take this lightly,” he said.

Minutes of the meeting show forum members did not want to create “onerous new legislation.”

“(The forum) supports the development of legislation or other mechanisms to effectively address and penalize egregious behavior as it relates to individual and institutional academic integrity,” the minutes said. “However, the Forum expressed concern with subjecting the entire membership to significant additional regulations in this area.”

Gilliam said any policies developed would not be solely based on what happened at a particular university. He said the forum would review the working group’s recommendations, with an eye toward the NCAA taking up reforms at spring or summer meetings in 2019.

Carol Cartwright, a president emeritus of Kent State and Bowling Green State universities, is serving on the working group. She is also a co-chair of the Knight Commission, which promotes educational opportunity in college sports, and served on the infractions committee handling the UNC case.

In October 2017, following the UNC decision, the Knight Commission called for the academic reforms the Rice Commission later embraced. But at a Knight Commission meeting a year later, Cartwright pivoted on the question of whether the commission was still pushing those reforms.

She pointed to another Rice Commission recommendation the NCAA adopted that she said would help it tackle academic misconduct cases. The new rule allows it to make use of reports by independent bodies such as accrediting commissions.

“It is now possible to import documents from other work, accreditation reports, for example, and you know that was a part of the North Carolina case, but also court cases,” she said. “So, in a way, while the organization still doesn’t have subpoena power, they are going to now be able to import documents to help them with those investigations.”

But it’s hard to see how that change would make a difference if schools continue to be the sole determiner of what constitutes academic fraud on their campuses.

David Robinson, a Knight Commission member who also served on the Rice Commission, took a dimmer view when asked about the proposed reforms. The former NBA and college star said member schools want to maintain their academic freedom, and they could lose some of it if the NCAA adopts a minimum set of standards.

“Every recommendation is not easily implementable, right?” he said.

Even a professor who is a critic of the NCAA’s rules is uncomfortable with it setting academic standards for member schools. Victoria Jackson, a former UNC track star who is now a sports historian at Arizona State University, said faculty at each university need to assert control over academics to prevent eligibility schemes and develop innovative ways to educate athletes.

“If there was some sort of baseline standards, I would suspect that the vast majority of institutions are already meeting it, so I don’t see it resolving anything,” she said.

Much of the NCAA’s reform package announced in August responded to the scandal surrounding an FBI investigation into payoffs from sneaker company representatives to assistant basketball coaches, AAU coaches and recruits’ families. Some of those reforms anticipate cooperation from the NBA, AAU teams, sneaker companies and agents.

A federal jury in New York recently delivered guilty verdicts against two Adidas representatives and an agent in that case, which involves several schools including NC State University. Testimony pointed to a former assistant NCSU coach delivering $40,000 in sneaker money to Dennis Smith Jr.’s family to make sure he went to the university.

That case and the NCAA reforms reinforce the amateur model that prevents athletes from receiving little more than the cost of attending college. NCAA President Mark Emmert and others in the association stress that athletes receive the opportunity for a free college education in exchange for their labor on the basketball court or football field. The top schools, meanwhile, take in tens of millions of dollars annually, much of it from TV broadcast rights.

The NCAA doesn’t need the help of an outside organization such as the NBA to pass academic integrity reforms. It only needs a vote from its members.

Marc Edelman, a sports law professor at Baruch College in New York City, doesn’t see that happening. He said federal courts or Congress would have to intervene.

“The NCAA is a bottom-up trade association, which is composed of member schools that have a strong financial interest in maintaining a version of college athletics in which the athletes are both uncompensated and not provided with an optimal education,” Edelman said. “Everything that the NCAA has done in recent years has been either to stave off imminent litigation or to preserve the self-interest of its membership.”

Dubois, the UNC-Charlotte president, said in an interview after his presentation to lawmakers that the Rice Commission’s report is driving academic reform.

“I think there is a real strong consensus among the presidents that there have to be some fundamental changes in these directions,” he said.