Sighs were a common reaction last week when the amended notice of allegations was released in the seemingly endless case of academic/athletic improprieties at the University of North Carolina. But that sound, expressive as it may be, can have multiple meanings.
In Chapel Hill, and among myriad Tar Heel fans, a sigh denoted relief the NCAA indictment shrank in explicit scope, dropping mention of football and men’s basketball, central sources of athletic revenue and pride. Where once those teams were specifically linked to a well-documented chain of rigorless African studies classes that served to enhance athletic eligibility, now only women’s basketball was obviously in enforcement’s crosshairs. The buzzards already were circling that program before the NCAA zeroed in.
So, after years thrashing through a thicket of pointed accusations, public barbs, and self-inflicted wounds, some UNC adherents took the revamped NCAA notice, even the serious pending charges of lack of institutional control and failure to monitor, as reassurance. Suddenly the athletic department’s vulnerability to sanction seemed reduced, the main damage limited to the academic realm. As if that somehow was preferable.
But away from UNC’s sphere of influence, the sighs expressed exasperation.
“When you examine this, it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for athletics,” insists University of Oklahoma professor Dr. Gerald Gurney, president of the Drake Group, a national athletic reform organization. He previously labeled the paper classes at Chapel Hill “the largest and the most egregious case of academic fraud by far in NCAA history.”
Gurney, whose professional work includes historical research on academic fraud in Division I sports, has little patience for denying the involvement of athletics in the creation and maintenance of a series of UNC paper classes heavily populated by athletes over 18 years. “That was its reason for being, and athletics certainly took advantage of it in a disproportionate manner,” he says of the scheme. As for the more narrow view that what UNC faces is primarily an academic scandal, Gurney replies, “The people at North Carolina can talk all they want – nobody in the public believes this. Come on! It’s laughable.”
Gurney insists the NCAA Committee on Infractions can, and has, gone beyond the specific findings of the enforcement staff to mete out punishment. Still, the truncated notice of violation from college sports’ governing body – especially its exclusion of a period that previously covered the 2005 basketball team’s NCAA title run – confirmed the view among cynics that the entire process was a sham destined to let the vaunted Tar Heels off the hook.
Feeding the cynicism
For years now, many in the men’s basketball community and beyond scoffed privately at the notion UNC would incur serious penalties, regardless of the severity of any infractions the NCAA established. Carolina basketball is a national commodity with significant stature and fiscal importance beyond the Smith Center. Tar Heel football hardly factors into the equation compared to a program with five NCAA championships and an annual series with Duke that draws top TV ratings.
Sure, other big-name programs such as Southern Cal, Penn State and Syracuse have been punished recently in either football or basketball. But none of those miscreants arguably maintained its elite status as consistently as the program shaped under not one, but a series of Hall of Fame coaches – Frank McGuire, Dean Smith and Roy Williams. Nor were those schools lauded as often as models of the proper balance in achieving both academic and athletic excellence.
I’m still hopeful that the Committee on Infractions understands that the world is watching, and the credibility of the NCAA is at stake.
University of Oklahoma professor Dr. Gerald Gurney, president of the Drake Group, a national athletic reform organization
Feeding the cynicism, the Carolina case apparently has the NCAA tied in knots over its role in policing academic fraud, despite perennially touting the happy marriage of academics and athletics at its member institutions.
Colleges and universities are rightly considered the masters of their own academic affairs. The NCAA – a creation of its membership that sometimes appears to have grown beyond their ready control – professes its purview ends at the classroom door. Thus, in response to a lawsuit filed by former UNC athletes Rashanda McCants and Devon Ramsay alleging failure to provide a quality education, last year the NCAA’s attorneys denied any legal responsibility “to ensure the academic integrity of the courses offered to student-athletes at its member institutions.”
Yet that hands-off approach is situational. Cheating to gain a competitive edge and exploitation of athletes, often with acquiescence from academicians, long ago caused NCAA leaders to set minimum scholastic standards for admission. Later they toughened rules on athletes’ progress toward a degree in order to allow continued participation.
Credibility at stake
Examples of punishment for manipulating academic standards abound. In 2004 the NCAA penalized Georgia’s basketball program in part for what was termed “egregious” academic fraud in awarding undeserved A’s to three players in a course on “Coaching Strategies and Principles of Basketball.” The class was taught by Jim Harrick Jr., an assistant coach and son of Bulldog head coach Jim Harrick. A memorable final exam question, with multiple choice options: “How many points does a three-point field goal account for?”
Florida State earned a stiff probation in 2009, and 10 sports forfeited scholarships and wins, including Bobby Bowden’s football program, because 61 athletes cheated with the help of academic personnel.
Carolina’s cluster of hollow classes endured far longer than the violations punished in either of those cases, and potentially tainted the eligibility of far more student-athletes.
“Academic fraud is among the most egregious of NCAA violations,” stated the Committee on Infractions’ 2009 report on FSU. “The committee was concerned with the large number of student-athletes involved in the fraud and especially by the fact that individuals within [academic support] were involved. The committee was further troubled by the fact that there were warning signs indicating that academic improprieties were taking place, but these warning signs were, for the most part, ignored.”
Those particulars certainly echo the UNC case, which was clearly more far-reaching in offering competitive advantages. Or was it? There appears to be confusion on that score. NCAA committees spent the last two years working on a new definition of “impermissible academic assistance,” presumably to better cover instances such as the scheme set up by non-faculty department manager Deborah Crowder, open to all students but meant to specifically benefit Tar Heel athletes.
It’s all enough to make your head spin.
“I’m still hopeful that the Committee on Infractions understands that the world is watching, and the credibility of the NCAA is at stake,” Gurney says. In fact, though, the credibility of the NCAA has been at stake for awhile, on the legal docket and in the court of public opinion, quite apart from North Carolina’s travails and how it chooses to deal with them.
UNC’s credibility is at stake too. Now that the bill of particulars has been delivered, we’ll soon see how serious chancellor Carol Folt and a relatively new administrative staff are about accepting responsibility and moving forward. To their credit, Folt and company subjected athletics to very public self-examination, and fixed many of the institutional shortcomings that allowed misdeeds to flourish. Now finish the job without fighting the consequences.