The NCAA is expected to approve new rules later this month that would give it more authority to pursue cases of academic misconduct, reforms three years in the making but placed in the spotlight by the scandal involving athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The proposed rules would require all Division I member schools to create their own academic misconduct policies for all students. That keeps the NCAA from having to make the call whether misconduct took place – something its member schools have adamantly opposed – while giving it the authority to cite the misconduct in leveling violations involving athletics.
The proposed rules, the first regarding academic integrity since 1983, also create a new category of violations for “impermissible academic assistance.” These are cases in which athletes receive academic help beyond what other students receive, or a member school falsely claims academic misconduct didn’t take place in a matter that benefited athletes.
The new rules would not impact the NCAA’s case against UNC, where a fake class scheme involved more than 3,100 students over an 18-year period. Nearly all of the classes were offered and graded by an African studies department office manager who wasn’t a professor.
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Roughly half of the students were athletes, particularly football and men’s and women’s basketball players. An investigation found the fraud started after academic counselors to the athletes complained about regular meetings and progress reports for independent study classes.
Carolyn Callahan, a University of Virginia education professor who served on the NCAA committee that drew up the rules, said they replace academic misconduct regulations that are vague and difficult to enforce. As a result, the NCAA often uses an “impermissible benefit” regulation that was originally intended for cases in which athletes receive cars, cash or trips.
“There was nowhere that people could really find a clear consolidated place for academic issues,” said Callahan, who is also the university’s faculty athletic representative.
The NCAA has used the impermissible benefits regulations to build a case against UNC, alleging five major violations in a notice delivered 11 months ago. UNC is expecting a new notice within the next few weeks that is expected to incorporate evidence of additional allegations involving women’s basketball.
Callahan said the proposed rules are not in response to the UNC scandal, though the work began as the word about it was spreading.
The NCAA’s Division I board of directors is expected to approve the proposed academic integrity rules April 28. The rules have already cleared several NCAA committees.
Criticism from Duncan
The scandal has become a focal point in the college sports debate. It drew sustained national attention as the UNC men’s basketball team made its way to the NCAA championship game only to lose to Villanova on a buzzer-beater.
Last month, a Showtime 60 Minutes Sports report featured former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s criticism of UNC and its basketball program. Duncan recently joined the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics as a vice-chairman.
“I just think about those young men who the vast majority are probably first generation in their family having the chance to go to college, and the chance not to just play basketball in North Carolina but the chance to get a degree from the University of North Carolina,” Duncan said. “That’s a life-transforming opportunity. And the fact they were denied that chance is mindboggling. It’s mindboggling. And they were denied it systemically, systematically. This was part of the University of North Carolina basketball system.”
UNC administrative and athletic officials say the basketball program wasn’t complicit in the scandal. The NCAA’s notice of allegations reported that men’s basketball players were among the top three teams that received impermissible benefits, but it did not accuse basketball officials or staff of wrongdoing.
Duncan said the coaches should bear responsibility for the fake classes that occurred under their watch.
“Who cares (whether they knew)?” he said. “That’s the problem. They’re above the law.”
Not strict enough?
Some critics find the proposed rules to be not much more than a face-saving gesture after the NCAA did little to investigate the academic fraud at UNC for nearly three years.
Gerald Gurney is a University of Oklahoma professor and president of The Drake Group, which advocates for academic integrity in college sports. He said the NCAA is “desperately” trying to minimize its role on the academic side.
“The NCAA by doing so sends a message to all institutions, and that is ‘We’ll leave it up to you,’ ” Gurney said. “And North Carolina is a prime example of the inability of college presidents and athletic programs and college administrators to adequately control academic integrity in athletics. There is too much money at stake here.”
Callahan said it’s virtually impossible for the NCAA to judge academic standards for every member university. That includes making the call whether a class without an instructor – a key contributor to UNC’s fake classes – constitutes a real class.
“The NCAA clearly leaves any judgment about quality of classes, quality of educational programs, to the accrediting agencies because the accrediting agencies are responsible for the educational quality of the programs offered,” she said.
The agency that accredits UNC has placed it on probation for several violations of standards, including academic integrity and control over its sports programs.
The NCAA’s proposed academic integrity rules also come as UNC faces two federal lawsuits by former athletes who say they were steered into the fake classes and deprived of a meaningful education in order to focus on athletics.
The lawsuits, including one that names the NCAA as a co-defendant, are scheduled for preliminary arguments on Tuesday in Winston-Salem. The judge’s ruling could determine whether the cases are dismissed or allowed to continue with access to witnesses and documents.
The NCAA’s position that academic misconduct decisions should be left to member schools will likely draw scrutiny in both cases.