The verdict is in, at least from several experts on college sports: The athletic and academic misconduct at UNC-Chapel Hill dwarfs related scandals at other universities.
“A, it went on over such a long period of time. B, it involved so many people: coaches, faculty, academic advisers,” said Gary Roberts, the former dean of the Indiana University School of Law and a national expert on sports law. “And C, the degree of academic misconduct was so outrageous, giving them A’s and B’s for doing nothing, for not showing up in class.”
Roberts said he’s not saying this activity isn’t going on elsewhere: “They just got caught.”
On Wednesday, the university released a report from a group of outside lawyers led by Kenneth Wainstein that showed how academic counselors, eager to keep players eligible, pushed athletes into a system of no-show “paper” classes enabled by two sympathetic officials in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.
The 18-year scheme kept athletes with poor grades eligible to play by generating inflated grades, often through classes advertised as lectures that had been quietly converted into bogus independent studies. The classes involved at least 3,100 students, about half of them athletes.
Manager Deborah Crowder and Chairman Julius Nyang’oro ran a “shadow curriculum” within the department of paper classes that involved no interaction with a faculty member, required no class attendance or coursework other than a single paper, the report states. Crowder awarded high grades without reading the papers.
The report is just the latest example of the negative effects of the commercialization of college sports, said Mike Bowen, a business professor at the University of South Florida and president of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an alliance of faculty senates seeking long-term reform in college athletics.
“So many people are making money on this: coaches and TV and Nike and ESPN and Under Armour,” Bowen said.
There is an irony in the upside and downside here, Bowen said. Universities don’t make a lot of money on athletics but can suffer great damage.
“What North Carolina is going through is a university’s worst nightmare – their very integrity is being questioned,” Bowen said. “The system needs to be fixed. We are just diddling on the edges of this.”
The university has given the NCAA copies of the Wainstein report. It is not clear when or how the NCAA will take action and what penalties the organization will assess. But given the number of university employees involved, the number of athletes and the length of the scheme, most observers expect serious sanctions.
John Infante, who has written extensively about the NCAA, is among them.
“The relationship between UNC’s athletics and AFAM departments strikes at the core of the NCAA,” Infante wrote. “It offers fuel to all of the NCAA’s critics on both sides: that athletics has corrupted the mission of higher education and that the education offered to athletes is a ruse used to justify a system that exploits them commercially. The NCAA cannot allow that to go unpunished.”
College athletics has played host to a variety of scandals. More recently, a child sex abuse scandal at Penn State ended the storied career of football coach Joe Paterno and saw former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sentenced to at least 30 years in prison for sex crimes against children.
In 2010, the NCAA forced the University of Southern California’s football team to forfeit its 2004 national championship and all its 2005 wins after football star Reggie Bush was found to have accepted gifts from agents. Bush gave up his 2005 Heisman Trophy.
The UNC scandal is different because the misconduct corrupted the university’s academic programs. UNC leaders have insisted that the current scandal isn’t strictly an athletics scandal because half of the students who took paper classes were not athletes.
In previous scandals, the NCAA has accepted this argument in sparing Auburn University and the University of Michigan after newspaper investigations identified professors teaching far more independent studies than they could be expected to manage.
Other schools with scandals involving athletes’ academics have seen scholarships trimmed and victories erased from the record books:
Florida State University – 3 employees, misconduct spanned 2 years, 61 athletes: FSU was forced to vacate wins in 10 sports, including football, swimming and basketball. The NCAA put the school on probation for four years in an academic fraud case that involved 61 athletes and three university employees in 2006 and 2007.
The fraud involved three employees of the Athletics Academic Support Services: a learning specialist, an academic adviser and a tutor who aided athletes improperly.
“Academic fraud is among the most egregious of N.C.A.A. violations,” the NCAA report states. “The committee was concerned with the large number of student-athletes involved in the fraud and especially by the fact that individuals within the institution’s (academic advisers) unit were involved. The committee was further troubled by the fact that there were warning signs indicating that academic improprieties were taking place, but these warning signs were, for the most part, ignored.”
University of Minnesota – 3 employees, 18 athletes, 4 years: On the eve of the NCAA basketball tournament in 1999, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that a former tutor and office manager for the basketball team had written hundreds of papers for players.
The NCAA found that Jan Gangelhoff completed coursework for at least 18 basketball players. Former academic adviser Alonzo Newby arranged the work with the knowledge of coach Clem Haskins.
To reward the two employees, Haskins paid Gangelhoff $3,000 of his own money and also paid for a leased car for Newby for six years.
“The violations were significant, widespread and intentional,” the NCAA ruled. “More than that, their nature – academic fraud – undermined the bedrock foundation of a university and the operation of its intercollegiate athletics program.”
The NCAA put the team on probation for four years and vacated all tournament records of the players and team for four seasons, including 1997, when the Golden Gophers won the Big Ten title and made the NCAA Final Four for the first time. Haskins’ record was also stripped of the tournament victories and any mention of the Final Four appearance.
University of Georgia – 1 coach, 3 players, 1 year: The scandal centered around assistant basketball coach Jim Harrick Jr., son of head coach Jim Harrick.
Harrick Jr. fraudulently awarded “A” grades to three basketball players in a course he was teaching, “Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball.” The NCAA described it as “a sham class.” One player never went to class, while the other two attended a few times. None took a final exam. The NCAA put the Georgia basketball team on probation for four years and cut back on scholarships.
Purdue University – 1 coach, 1 player, 1 year: In 2007, the NCAA placed Purdue on probation for two years after finding that a former assistant women’s basketball coach helped a former player commit academic fraud by writing two papers for the student and later lied about it to investigators. The school lost two of its 15 scholarships that year.
But not all cases of academic misconduct brought NCAA sanctions. In 1981, professor Jan Kemp complained that the University of Georgia had intervened so that nine football players passed a remedial English course that they had failed. The players remained eligible to play in that season’s Sugar Bowl.
The university later fired Kemp. She sued; a federal jury found the university had illegally fired her and awarded her $2.5 million. The award was later reduced to $1 million.
More recently, The New York Times reported in 2006 that Auburn University’s sociology department chairman was allowing football players to take independent study-style classes that required little or no work, boosting their grade-point averages and helping them maintain their eligibility on the field.
The independent study courses benefited athletes, but the NCAA did not act. They were seen as internal concerns over how universities conduct their own classes.
Lack of transparency
Bruce Svare, a psychology professor who directs the National Institute for Sports Reform, said the UNC case is the biggest academic fraud scandal in college sports.
“Take a look at the number of athletes involved, the number of complicit university personnel, and the length of time that it went on,” he said.
He said a more vigilant faculty and more transparency involving the athletes’ academics are necessary to combat what happened.
Many universities, including UNC, have resisted transparency, saying federal privacy laws forbid them from discussing the records and behavior of individual students. For example, the Wainstein report released 900 pages of university records as underlying documents, some of them partially redacted. The News & Observer had requested many of those records under the North Carolina public records law but received only a small percentage of them.
“Academic fraud begins and ends with faculty, staff and administrators who are sympathetic to athletes and sports programs on their campuses,” Svare said. “Thus, the solution is truth-telling, transparency and disclosure. For courses taken by members of sports teams, universities should make public the courses taken by athletes, the names of the professors who teach them, and the courses’ GPA.”
But some think the solutions need to be found off campus. U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas, a California Democrat, said all college athletes should receive a solid education. He said reform requires outside pressure such as investigative congressional hearings or new laws.
“We have a perfect example here of a fine institution that allowed itself to be bastardized in the pursuit of athletic glory,” Cardenas said. “They are cheating these students out of an education.”