The Opinion Shop

UNC owes student athletes an education

This piece was previously published in the Charlotte Observer.

A recent article in the Observer headlined the opinion of ESPN basketball commentator Jay Bilas that NCAA officials were “breaking their own rules to punish UNC” in the long-running athletics scandal. While I admire Bilas both for his professional skills and his unflagging advocacy for college athletes’ rights, I have to take exception to one perspective expressed by him in the story.

According to Bilas, UNC, which is charged in part with “impermissible benefits” relating to the academic classes at issue in the scandal, can’t be “accused of committing academic fraud because the NCAA’s definition of academic fraud doesn’t apply to the UNC case.” The article states, “Academic fraud, to the NCAA, is a player cheating the school.” In regard to the academic fraud aspect of the UNC case, Bilas – and the NCAA – are simply incorrect.

NCAA Bylaw 10.1 “Unethical Conduct” sets out in part the factual circumstances for finding a violation pertaining to an “enrolled student-athlete.” The conduct can be by a student-athlete or an institutional staff member, which includes “any individual who performs work for the institution or the athletics department.” “Unethical conduct” consists of knowing involvement in arranging for fraudulent academic credit...for an enrolled student-athlete.”

This bylaw and its description of the conduct involved as “academic fraud” was utilized in the first installment of NCAA violations involving UNC. In the fall of 2010 two UNC football players were declared ineligible to play because of alleged violations of Bylaw 10.1 because they supposedly received too much help on class papers from a UNC-employed tutor. In the “Findings of Violations of NCAA Legislation” set forth in the March 12, 2012 public infractions report handed down by the NCAA and accepted by UNC, the report states: “...student-athletes 1, 2 and 3...violated provisions of ethical conduct of legislation when they engaged in academic fraud.”

It’s obvious then that the NCAA believes that student-athletes getting too much help on classwork from a university-paid tutor is “academic fraud” and merits punishment of the university (as well as the athletes). In the current UNC case under consideration by the NCAA, there is copious documentation by a variety of studies and reports that a substantial number of classes with enrolled UNC athletes failed to meet accepted standards of higher education accreditation. Designated lecture classes never met. No professor was involved in the course. Grading was done by a staffer. And in some cases grade rolls were forged with the name of an actual professor.

Under that set of facts, there is simply no way that the NCAA could consider UNC’s conduct somehow distinguishable from the improper assistance given by an undergraduate tutor to an athlete on a single paper. So, the NCAA’s efforts to take an academic fraud case under Bylaw 10.1 and convert it into an “impermissible benefit” violation under a different bylaw defies logic.

Likewise, UNC’s efforts to deflect responsibility under the NCAA’s 10.1 Bylaw has no grounding in logic or reality. As noted early in an internal UNC report, there were a certain number of “aberrant” courses found. The one at the center of the initial scandal – Swahili 403 – was listed as a lecture course which met regularly, was taught by a professor in the fall, with a 25-page paper in Swahili required. Inexplicably there was also a “shadow” summer class in Swahili 403 that never met, had no professor, and only a 20-page paper in English was required. A tutor and athletic counselers were the only ones involved in the instruction. And to top it off, the official grade roll for the course had a forged signature of the legitimate professor on it.

To claim that course – and who knows how many similar ones – as not “academic fraud” strains the credibility of both the NCAA and UNC. I suggest they quit dancing around technical arguments and start focusing on seeing that college athletes get a legitimate education.

Orr is a retired N.C. Supreme Court Justice and UNC graduate. He has represented four UNC football players under NCAA investigation, including one charged with, and ultimately cleared of, a 10.1 violation. He is currently co-counsel representing former UNC athletes in a proposed class action arising from the academic issues.