There are few professors as involved in NCAA matters as University of Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto.
For more than a decade, she has served on the panel that hands down punishments to universities that violate NCAA regulations, including two years as its chair. She has helped shape those regulations on NCAA committees, in opinion pieces, lectures and congressional testimony. She’s also one of the nation’s longest-serving faculty athletic representatives, holding that role at Nebraska for 17 years.
She receives no pay for her NCAA work. But several weeks ago, she began a paid consulting job assisting UNC-Chapel Hill with what appears to be a landmark case of academic fraud that benefited athletes and is now under NCAA investigation.
A document obtained by The News & Observer listed Potuto among UNC officials, public relations experts and legal representatives who were to receive an advance copy of a report done by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein. His report, released last month, documented an 18-year scheme of fake classes created by an academic department manager primarily to help athletes maintain their eligibility to play sports.
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Neither administrative officials nor the faculty leader at Nebraska sees a problem with her doing the work, but some who cast a critical eye on college sports say it’s a job Potuto should not have taken. To them, it shows another problem with a college sports regulatory structure riddled with conflicts of interest.
Nathan Tublitz, a University of Oregon professor and former co-chairman of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a faculty-led group pushing for more academic integrity in college sports, called Potuto’s consulting “outrageous” because she remains a faculty athletic representative at Nebraska. That’s an NCAA-required position intended to uphold the academic integrity of the institution and ensure that athletes receive a true educational opportunity.
“She should be representing high academic standards,” Tublitz said. “She should not be getting paid to try and get another university out of academic trouble.”
An ‘outside eye’
Rick Evrard, an attorney with Bond, Schoeneck & King, the law firm UNC has hired to help with NCAA matters, confirmed that Potuto had been given the consultant work to assess the Wainstein report for potential violations. He said the firm has received her assessment, but could not rule out whether she would be called upon for additional work.
He would not say how much she was paid, other than it was a competitive rate.
“What we were looking for is an outside eye – how she would view this public report with her experience and expertise in infractions work,” Evrard said.
He said he is not aware of using Potuto as a consultant in the past, but his firm has used other former infractions committee members at least a half dozen times since he joined it in 1992.
Potuto, in a brief phone interview, referred all questions to Evrard,
“There’s nothing else I’m able to say,” Potuto said, “so if we have a conversation I might get into a situation where I say what I’m not able to say. So I’m going to have to hang up.”
Evrard and others who have been involved in NCAA work say Potuto’s consulting job doesn’t rise to the level of a conflict of interest as long as she is not presenting UNC’s case to the committee or being cited as an expert, should it come to that. The NCAA’s conflict-of-interest policy would prevent her from sitting on the committee if UNC came up for a hearing.
“If you are just a consultant, you are not going to be walking into the (hearing) room with people at the front you have working relationships with,” said Gene Marsh, a former infractions committee chairman from the University of Alabama.
Hiring former infractions committee members to help with NCAA cases carries an advantage that other experts lack. The hearings are closed to the public. That means few outsiders have knowledge of what goes on inside.
These former infractions committee members have taken part in dozens of hearings while they were on the committee, and can prepare university officials in mock hearings respond to tough questions.
Potuto served on the committee for the maximum nine years, until 2008, and was chair for the final two. All former committee members can be used as substitute members; Potuto sat in on infractions cases as recently as January 2013, NCAA records show.
An NCAA spokeswoman said Potuto, as a former member, is not required to disclose her consulting work to the committee unless she is called on to serve as a substitute. Sitting committee members are required to disclose conflicts. They are not allowed, for example, to hear cases involving their universities.
University of Nebraska faculty members are required to report outside employment that is substantial or involves a conflict of interest.
Nebraska officials would not say whether Potuto had contacted them in advance of the work, but Steven Smith, a spokesman for the University of Nebraska’s chancellor, said the university had “no concerns whatsoever” with Potuto’s UNC work and would not offer any further comment.
Potuto had not filled out forms disclosing outside employment for at least the past 10 years, a university attorney said.
In August 2013, the NCAA revamped the committee, expanding membership from 10 members to 24, which could eliminate the need for past members to serve as substitutes.
The managing director of the infractions committee, Joel McGormley, did not respond to email and phone requests for an interview.
Martha Putallaz, the faculty athletic representative at Duke, said Potuto would make an excellent consultant because she cares deeply about academic integrity and has lengthy experience in NCAA matters.
Potuto has been sharing news reports of the scandal in her role as past president of a Division I faculty athletic representative committee, Putallaz said.
“She’s outraged by what happened there,” Putallaz said. “People are just incredulous.”
Potuto was quoted in an N&O story about the scandal on July 11, 2012, shortly after UNC confirmed the existence of the bogus classes. At the time, UNC was saying the scandal was not athletic in nature because non-athletes were also enrolled and had the same access to the classes.
“One would have to decide that there was special treatment afforded to student-athletes, in order to find that there’s a violation,” Potuto said then. “There are ways to do it. But it’s not easy. You can’t do it simply by saying, ‘Hey, there are a lot of student-athletes in this class, and everybody got an A.’ That’s not going to get you there.”