I have been writing about the University of North Carolina and it’s almost never-ending academic and athletic fraud case for quite some time. Literally–this has gone on for years, but mercifully this may all be coming to an end soon, but don’t sleep on this thing yet as the end game is still up in the air and the NCAA may not be the actual last word. The battle lines have been drawn and now due to the public release of UNC’s response to the third NCAA amended notice of allegations (ANOA) a couple short weeks ago, we now know exactly how North Carolina is going to defend itself. The great writer, Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated wrote a typical excellent overview of the UNC response by calling the effort by North Carolina’s attorneys at challenging NCAA allegations in the ANOA a “compelling defense.”
I agree with Staples here-UNC has put forth a very compelling stance, but as I said before I am not buying it. Athletes who virtually had no chance of academically succeeding and were exploited for our entertainment did not get provided the promise (Re: myth) of intercollegiate athletics. They were not given access to an education, yet somehow they had to remain academically eligible to compete. Being academically eligible means more than GPA, it also means satisfactory progress and percentage of degree completion by NCAA standards. Yes the NCAA has different and in many cases a tougher percentage of degree requirements than its own member institutions — so much for the NCAA not being involved in academics or, in their own words, saying there is no duty to educate on the part of the NCAA. Imagine that? Bottom line–how were these athletes academically eligible without inordinate and special help beyond what is generally available for the student body?
There is simply no credibility in my view to attempt to justify a terribly run academic major program that was a massive soft spot in the curriculum, as something other than a primary benefit to athletic eligibility. How else could this exist for close to two decades but for the benefit to athletic eligibility? How else could these primarily young African-American men stay eligible to compete at one of our best public institutions, being so academically unprepared and UNC refusing to remediate them? To see UNC’s lawyers, who are top-notch litigators, try to couch this as easy classes led by benevolent people who wanted to help all students is insulting to those of us who worked in the business and do this every day. It is as if virtually all students needed this type of extreme “assistance” at a public ivy. Really? I will never buy that explanation no matter how good the lawyers did in the response and no matter what the NCAA eventually rules, because they may actually buy this explanation. Johnnie Cochran made a compelling defense of OJ Simpson and it worked, but it was wrong. I still don’t believe that OJ is not a killer despite the not guilty verdict. While that isn’t a completely fair comparison, it does show that ingrained systems can make mistakes and the NCAA and UNC have been full of them. Full of them in a system that has already been criticized by UNC’s own athletic director, Bubba Cunningham as unfair and insular, as if that is a new thing.
UNC may actually walk on this, but part of me does not think so or even hope so. This case is about one of the core issues with college athletics, most notably in the for-profit sports of football and men’s basketball. This is a case like so many others where academic integrity simply did not matter and eligibility was obtained by any means necessary. Did UNC actually violate NCAA rules? The response throws doubt in some people’s minds and maybe even in the mind of the COI. In my view, it is non-debatable that NCAA rules and interpretations were violated. This was intentional to gain a competitive advantage and keep athletes eligible. The spirit of the rules of college sports surely were violated in that athletes were clustered into a major with friendly administrators and faculty that enabled the sport to be the main priority despite the continual rhetoric of “student athlete” by the institution and the NCAA. Actual rules of extra benefits, eligibility, and academic fraud are also clearly present in my view. Yet the inconsistency of the NCAA in cases such as this may be the saving grace for North Carolina in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI).
To this Staples adds, “This may sound crazy given the depth and the scope of the academic fraud that North Carolina officials have already admitted took place, but the school’s response to NCAA’s third notice of allegations suggests that North Carolina’s attorneys have mounted a compelling defense in this case. That may not matter in a process famous for being made up as it goes along, but it’s important to note as the NCAA’s existential crisis continues.” Existential is right, but it really should not be this hard. Staples (and by the lawyers in UNCs response) makes due note of two somewhat similar cases in Auburn and Michigan that were not investigated by the NCAA enforcement staff as it was determined to be an academic curricular, and not an athletic issue, on those campuses. This has been UNC’s defense for several years and they have not stopped that mantra. North Carolina’s attorneys have consistently argued that the NCAA had no applicable bylaw (rules have somewhat been realigned since the UNC case) when the academic fraud took place. Staples believes UNC may be correct and it is hard to argue given the past inconsistencies in how academic fraud and academic extra benefits are viewed by the NCAA.
The NCAA has sometimes been reticent but often militant in determining what is academically acceptable for eligibility in college sports. UNC correctly states that there have been serious academic issues that the NCAA did not address at other institutions. This fact will be a huge advantage for the Tar Heels in the COI hearing and its lawyers are smart to focus on that. However, there are many schools that have had different experiences and felt the full force of the NCAA hammer regarding academic fraud and academic extra benefits despite that there really has not been (until recently) an actual NCAA bylaw that addressed academic fraud. Staples correctly notes this but as with all NCAA legislative operations there are binding interpretations and there has been a clear interpretation on what constitutes academic fraud since 2000 and was in place during the time of the fake/easy/irregular classes at UNC. The interpretation says:
-Any time an institutional staff member (e.g., coach, professor, tutor, teaching assistant) is knowingly involved in arranging fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts for a prospective student-athlete or student-athlete, regardless whether the staff member acted alone or in concert with the prospect or student-athlete.
-Anytime a student-athlete, acting alone or in concert with others knowingly becomes involved in arranging fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts, regardless of whether such conduct results in an erroneous declaration of eligibility.