What UNC academic scandal ruling, FBI college basketball case say about the NCAA

Like the best work of the worst politician, there’s something for everyone and nothing for anyone in the ruling by the NCAA Committee on Infractions absolving the University of North Carolina of punishable wrongdoing in what even school administrators admitted in another venue was a case of “academic fraud.”

Unfortunately, along with the strong feelings engendered on all sides by the decision, and the example of defiance it reinforces, one inescapable fact emerges. Or, rather, re-emerges: As an institution governing the conduct of its members, the NCAA is as hollow as the AFAM classes at the heart of the UNC case.

The analysis by the Committee on Infractions (COI, in NCAA shorthand) was a masterwork of hemming and hawing, of on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand. The committee was “troubled” and “skeptical” about various aspects of the university’s arguments, but couldn’t bring itself to take a stand.

“The panel concludes,” it wrote, “that it is more likely than not that student-athletes received fraudulent credit by the common understanding of what that term means. It is also more likely than not that UNC personnel used the courses to purposely obtain and maintain student-athletes’ eligibility.”

No kidding.

“The panel respects the importance of academic freedom in higher education,” the findings went on. “But it is not boundless, and it cannot be utilized as a shield from responsibility in circumstances that involve student-athletes.”

But, then, sticking to the narrowest of interpretations, perhaps cowed by the university’s well-funded defiance of the NCAA’s jurisdiction, the committee added, “The record, however, does not establish specific, intentional or systemic efforts tied to athletics motives.”

Except, the record did just that.

“The panel is troubled by UNC’s shifting positions, including its positions related to the Cadwalader report (also known as the Wainstein Report), depending on the audience,” the infractions decision stated. “The Cadwalader report included damning facts and conclusions of what had occurred in the AFRI/AFAM department for nearly two decades. After boasting of the report’s importance to its accreditor and using it, at least in part, to take disciplinary action against personnel and to implement significant corrective measures, UNC attacked the same report in the infractions process.”

But that stance was acceptable for the university to take, as opposed to taking responsibility under NCAA standards because, for all the endless puffery linking big-time college sports to academics, the two exist quite separately in the NCAA universe. “Stated directly, the NCAA defers to academies on matters of academic fraud. As institutions of higher education,” the report concluded, “the NCAA membership trusts fellow members to hold themselves accountable in matters of academic integrity.”

Talk about a fatal blindspot. Time and time again, from coast to coast, conference to conference, sport to sport, NCAA members have proven they’ll countenance subversion of academic integrity in pursuit of revenues, victories and popular acclaim. The notion that academics is all-important, to which the NCAA desperately clings, means there must be commonly held standards. Yet the fig leaf behind which North Carolina and ultimately the infractions panel hid is that the standards are conditional and open to interpretation.

Among the ironies of the Carolina case were objections that Greg Sankey, chair of the COI, had a disqualifying conflict of interest as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Sankey grumbled righteously after the ruling was released, but acquiesced in letting UNC off the hook.

His conflict was less oversight of a league that competes with the ACC, to which North Carolina belongs, than in representing a conference quite conversant with the adverse consequences of NCAA punishment. At one point recently, the SEC built a streak of at least one member on NCAA probation for 20 consecutive years, most but not all prior to Sankey’s arrival in the league office. From 2006 to 2015, when Sankey was there and moved up from a deputy’s role to commissioner, eight SEC schools went on probation. (Compared to a measly five for the ACC).

For all that, the NCAA isn’t very good at holding folks accountable for cold-eyed corruption. Recall it was earlier this month that expressions of shock ruled the day when the U.S. Justice Department revealed an investigation and indictments on charges of fraud and bribery in college basketball. The surprise could only have been that anyone actually nailed down the facts. (Which are only allegations at this point.)

Certainly the revelations didn’t result from school officials taking principled stands. “I think one of the most disturbing elements of this whole circumstance is it seems to have uncovered, at least in these cases, a code of silence,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert, “that people who were aware of these things weren’t coming forward.”

The NCAA has neither the investigative capability nor the determination to actually get to the bottom of systematic cheating. The UNC verdict will reinforce that impression, especially among those who perceive a privileged class of programs largely exempt from strict punishment.

There’s a logical conflict in expecting NCAA members to self-police when their self-interest is at stake. Never-ending investments in expensive new sports facilities, and multimillion dollar commitments to TV networks, sneaker companies and other corporate sponsors, ensure the importance of keeping the gravy train rolling merrily along.

Every day there’s fresh evidence it’s time to fundamentally reform the NCAA, from addressing racial and gender inequities to treatment of athletes to double standards in enforcement to corrosively exorbitant salaries. Restructure the whole thing, and not just by giving the rich guys more “autonomy” to get what they want. Find a way to farm out investigations that gives them teeth. Establish uniform sentencing standards for rules violators. Explicitly tie academics to athletics, or end the insulting “student-athlete” charade.

Typically, what arose in response to the FBI’s excavation in college sport’s septic cellar was a blue-ribbon panel of well-meaning folks, their compartmentalized charge to investigate and recommend changes in college basketball, “a system that is clearly not working,” according to the NCAA. The group will be led by Condoleezza Rice, a former U.S. Secretary of State whose main tie to college basketball is voting to rank teams for the College Football Playoff selection committee. Maybe she’ll tip the group to the fact similar problems infect college football. Or they can just ask North Carolina.

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