The University of North Carolina's academic fraud scandal and the NCAA's decision not to punish the school did not spur the organization's decision to appoint a special college basketball commission.
An FBI investigation into corruption in the sport and the indictment of four assistant coaches provided the impetus for that.
But it's clear the North Carolina case had a profound impact on the members of the Commission on College Basketball, led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, including NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson. Earlier this week, Robinson called the case "maybe the most disappointing thing I’ve seen since I’ve been watching sports."
Robinson, who starred at the U.S. Naval Academy before his pro career with the San Antonio Spurs, made his comments at the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics' spring meeting in Washington, D.C. on Monday.
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"If you’re going to promise education, and you say this is our big benefit to you is giving you a potential to make $1 million more over your lifetime because we give you a great education, then you say the classes we gave you weren’t valid," Robinson said, "then I have a real problem with that and that’s probably the most damaging thing I've seen personally."
The long-running UNC case, which ended in October, involved questionable African Studies classes that allowed student-athletes to maintain eligibility. As noted in a report by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, after initially agreeing with an accreditor that the classes were fraudulent, the school changed direction and stood behind the integrity of the classes to stave off NCAA sanctions.
"It undermines everything we talk about with here’s the value of what we’re giving these kids. Then we’re undermining the value of what we’re giving the kids. ... If you have a system where you’re not really giving the kids what you promised, it does kind of look like, you know, slavery or just a really bad system," Robinson said, just minutes after the mother of a former Duke star compared the NCAA system to slavery and prison labor.
Robinson's son Justin plays at Duke.
The Rice commission, which released its findings and recommendations in late April, referred to the UNC classes in a footnote to its report related to schools’ efforts to keep athletes academically eligible. While its recommendations on ending the "one-and-done" rule got much of the attention, the commission also called for the NCAA to establish neutral investigation and adjudication of serious infractions. And the commission proposed that the NCAA create stiffer penalties for cheating and giving the NCAA "jurisdiction to address academic fraud and misconduct."
"Member institutions can no longer be permitted to defend a fraud or misconduct case on the grounds that all students, not just athletes, were permitted to 'benefit' from that fraud or misconduct," the commission wrote.
The NCAA said it will move quickly to implement many of the commission's recommendations — with a possible final vote on some of the changes by January. When the NCAA reached its final decision in the UNC case, president Mark Emmert said the infractions committee felt "hamstrung" by the NCAA's academic fraud rules.
Carol A. Cartwright, co-chair of the Knight Commission and a member of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions that decided the North Carolina case, said there is not yet agreement on the Rice commission's recommendations about academic quality.
"There’s a very complex issue there about who has the right to make a judgment about academic quality. The Rice commission wasn’t going to make that judgment but they highlighted it as something that needs to be reviewed, evaluated and eventually a decision needs to be made," she said.
Cartwright, a former president at Kent State University and Bowling Green State University, said she favors institutions having the power to make those judgments.
"It is an institution that has to stand up and be accountable for its academic quality, but the larger questions have to do with whether or not there are some issues that benefit student-athletes disproportionately," she said. "And whether there’s a loophole in terms of what institutions can do to work around their own rules. That’s what’s under discussion as well."
Cartwright said the Committee on Infractions did not feel they could overrule the school's judgment about the quality of the classes, and since the classes were not limited to solely student-athletes, it could not be termed an "impermissible benefit" by the NCAA.
"The UNC question had to do with that university standing up and saying, 'We stand behind these courses. We certify that they are quality. We have them on a students’ transcript. They count for students’ graduation. We stand behind our courses and call them quality.'" she said. "If you want to debate that, debate it with UNC."
That defense still roils some within the NCAA.
Tom Yeager, a former commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association and the former chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, called UNC's actions "shenanigans."
"The thing that I’ve said all along out of those couple thousand kids — take the athletes out of it, take them out of it — so for the fraternity guys and everybody else that was in that class: They used it to maintain full time enrollment, to qualify for financial aid, to graduate and everything else. University, whatever happened with those kids, not the athletes, with those kids, you’re standing behind it? They apparently said yes. Dumbfounded me. End of discussion. You’re standing behind that?' he said.
"How do you violate standards if there are no standards? That was a really unique situation."
Yeager said the infractions committee processed plenty of academic fraud cases and in nearly all of them there was a clear violation of norms when it came to athletes. He said members of the committee often had long debates about what exactly constituted academic fraud, usually by arguing if what was done violated the school's standards.
"There’s no standard and that’s what they argued," he said. "It’s unbelievable that a university would argue that, that these shenanigans were OK."