Column: NCAA Punts On UNC Academic FraudOctober 26, 2017
In 1993, UNC began offering independent study courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. Over a period of almost 20 years approximately 3,100 students took the classes, almost half of whom were athletes. The courses required no attendance and only one gradable component, a paper at the end of the semester. After the scheme was uncovered, the NCAA conducted a three –year investigation, ultimately agreeing with UNC’s position that it did not violate any rules.
The charge against UNC was providing extra benefits to athletes. The University presented a two-prong defense to the charges. First, the University argued the governing body had no jurisdiction in the case, claiming it was an academic curriculum issue the University and/or its accrediting body should deal with. That view mirrors the longstanding NCAA position, even in cases of fake classes.
Second, UNC accurately pointed out that the paper classes were open to all students, i.e., non-athletes benefitted from them as well, which negates the NCAA’s charge of extra benefits. The NCAA had previously determined such things as adding cream cheese to a bagel and giving an athlete a ride across campus in a golf cart constitute extra benefits. But the Committee on Infractions couldn’t reach the same conclusion in the UNC case for the simple reason that the “paper courses” were available to the entire student body, not just athletes.
The Committee ignored the fact that in addition to the phony courses, professors in the department regularly entered grade changes and administrators forged faculty signatures to help athletes remain eligible. If those activities don’t qualify as “extra benefits” then the phrase has no meaning.
The NCAA was guilty of a gross strategic error in the UNC case. Instead of levying an extra benefits charge they should have charged the University with a lack of institutional control, as they have done for much less egregious actions. It’s almost as if the governing body didn’t want to find against UNC for fear of opening Pandora’s Box when it comes to the issue of academics. But it may have done exactly the opposite. After the UNC decision, what’s to prevent other schools from mimicking UNC? Don’t tell me it’s the shame of being exposed because the only shame in big-time college athletics is the shame of losing on the playing field.
After the NCAA ruling, the UNC athletic program can exhale. The rest of us can laugh...or throw up, depending on whether you find the NCAA’s decision and rationale humorous or disgusting. One thing is certain: No longer can we pretend that the phrase “student-athlete” has meaning. The decision affirms there is no longer any connection between college athletics and academics. It’s time to drop the word student from the NCAA vocabulary.