NCAA finds no academic fraud by UNC – surprised?

If you were waiting for the hammer to come down on the University of North Carolina after a three-and-a-half year investigation by the NCAA, you’re likely disappointed but unsurprised by the outcome.

In summary, here’s what we know:

• The university sponsored fake classes for nearly two decades.

• This was considered one of the worst academic scandals in college sports history.

• Students, many of them athletes, received credit for courses never taught by instructors.

• A law firm’s report commissioned by the university found that non-athletes also benefited from the classes, concluding that of 3,100 UNC students enrolled in the courses, about half of those in the 188 faux classes were athletes. Investigators concluded that university employees were aware of the fraud and actively steered athletes and other struggling students to those courses.

• The report states that student athletes in particular were given ready access to the watered-down classes to help them manage their competing athletic and academic time demands.

• The NCAA’s enforcement division, which essentially acts as the prosecutor in infractions cases, had charged North Carolina with “lack of institutional control” and “failure to monitor” its athletes’ academic courses, among the most serious charges in the associations’ rule book.

• The infractions committee could not reach findings because it did not have evidence to prove the underlying charges of awarding “extra benefits” to athletes.

• UNC spent about $18 million on legal and other fees.

The entire ordeal may have left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, except maybe North Carolina.

Greg Sankey, leader of the infractions panel, said in a statement that he was “troubled by the university’s shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus. I think it’s important to understand the panel is in no way supporting what happened.”

UNC’s vice chancellor Mar Merritt characterized the classes not as fraudulent, but rather lacking professional oversight with easy grading—akin to an independent study model. He said the university was not proud of its behavior but argued that it did not violate NCAA bylaws.

Marc Edleman, professor of law at Baruch College and a sports law specialist, said the NCAA errs on the side of stricter sanctions when it wants to. Because the Penn State case received such an avalanche of negative press, the NCAA perceived it was politically prudent to act. According to a story in Inside Higher Ed, if the association had cracked down in this case, it likely would have opened the possibility of investigations into similar practices—which are almost certainly happening—at other big-name institutions, Edelman said.

Dave Ridpath, president of the athletics watchdog Drake Group, called the NCAA and its ruling “shameful,” and said it demonstrates institutions can get away with academic fraud and game the system.

Ridpath said according to athletics directors and former members of the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions with whom he spoke, this was a clear and atrocious example of academic fraud. But ultimately, Ridpath said, he wasn’t surprised.

“I don’t think that the NCAA enforcement committee ever would have the guts to punish North Carolina,” he said.

“People have to remember NCAA is a private trade association that is run and operated by its members,” Ridpath said. “Despite what the NCAA proclaims on paper, the primary objective of this association for upwards of 30 years is to keep the revenues from college sports in the hand of its own voting members—coaches and athletics directors. One would like to believe the NCAA is primarily concerned about the education of athletes, but that seems to take a secondary role.”

The good news is that education is occurring. The bad news is that it is happening at the expense of the public and those students who are honestly taking honest classes.

Hillsboro resident Joe Klein­sasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. You can reached him at Joe.Klein­sasser@wichita.edu.