The NCAA’s UNC Decision: Nothing to See Here, Move Along

UNC-Chapel Hill’s infamous athletics-academic scandal has officially been swept under the rug. On October 13th, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions announced that UNC-Chapel Hill will not be punished for the fraudulent classes it offered to 3,100 students, 47.6 percent of whom were athletes, for nearly two decades. This decision concludes Chapel Hill’s six-year saga of allegations, obfuscations, investigations, and public shame.

The university’s administrators not only appear relieved; they seem convinced that the NCAA made the right decision. In a university message, Chancellor Carol Folt wrote that the NCAA’s conclusion that UNC didn’t violate any NCAA bylaws was the “correct—and fair—outcome.”

Yet many others, including media commentators, educators, and sports fans, expressed dismay and disbelief at the NCAA’s failure to enforce academic accountability. A commentator from the Herald Sun, a North Carolina-based newspaper, argued that the NCAA failed in its disciplinary role due to a conflict of interest:

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.

How did UNC-Chapel Hill emerge unscathed from virtually the largest academic scandal in college sports history?

UNC was cleared of allegations because of a single technicality: The NCAA decided that the case was outside its jurisdiction because non-athletes were also enrolled in the fake classes.

But that technicality is irrelevant to the major issue at hand. When the NCAA initiated a three-year long investigation, the accusation it leveled against UNC was not that of academic fraud per se; rather, it was investigating whether or not the university administered special favors to student-athletes to help them earn good grades and maintain athletic eligibility. And there is a significant amount of evidence that suggests student-athletes were purposely funneled through the fraudulent courses at the heart of the investigation.

Not only were there a disproportionate number of athletes enrolled in those courses (nearly half of the 3,100 students enrolled were athletes), but the NCAA Infractions Committee even said that “it is more likely than not that student athletes received fraudulent credit…It is also more likely than not that UNC personnel used the courses to purposely obtain and maintain student athletes’ eligibility.” Nonetheless, the NCAA couldn’t prove that the courses were directly intended to bolster athletes’ GPAs because the academic “privileges” (easy A’s) were made available to both athletes and non-athletes. As Yahoo sports columnist Pat Forde put it, the Tar Heels “skate[d] on a technicality” and “exploited [a] loophole.”

Even worse, the situation reeks of collusion with the other governing body with the authority to sanction UNC. UNC’s regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, will take no action in response to the NCAA’s decision. The president of the organization said that “I have read the [NCAA’s] report and I find nothing in it to cause use [sic] to reopen the investigation.”

Such inaction in the face of blatant academic fraud points to a deeper problem in the governance of college athletics. If universities can so easily bypass NCAA rules, then there seems to be little guarantee that they won’t engage in similar activities in the future.

To be sure, UNC-Chapel Hill claims that it has taken great measures to ensure that such “academic irregularities” will not occur again. Indeed, the university has instituted more than 70 reforms for that very purpose, which are outlined on its website created in an effort for transparency. They may help in some ways; many of the reforms constitute increased levels of accountability and monitoring of academic advising and course content.

But these reforms will remain surface solutions if the university does not address the underlying systemic flaws that facilitated extensive academic dishonesty in the first place. Even after seven years under intense public scrutiny during which numerous ethical offenses were uncovered, UNC still has policies that permit and incentivize the athletics department to bypass academic standards.

For example, UNC allows its athletics department to administer academic “waivers” when admitting athletes into the university. In order to be admitted to an institution within the UNC system, students are required to meet a minimal high school GPA requirement of 2.5 and an SAT score of 880 on both the verbal and math sections (800 for the old version) or a score of 17 on the ACT. But those are just minimum requirements for the system as a whole—the average composite SAT score of students at UNC-Chapel Hill is 1370 and the average ACT score is 29.

Not surprisingly, UNC system coaches routinely take advantage of the academic waiver loophole.

It is difficult to imagine an athlete who fails to meet the system’s minimal standards keeping up academically in a course designed for Chapel Hill students. Yet, student athletes who do not meet any of the minimal requirements may still gain admission if the faculty Committee on Special Talent, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, and the Chancellor approve the decision. That is despite the fact that the SAT’s publisher, the College Board, considers a composite SAT score of 1010 to be the minimum indication of college readiness.

Not surprisingly, UNC system coaches routinely take advantage of the academic waiver loophole. In the 2013-14 academic years, 4.5 percent of admitted student-athletes did not meet standard admission requirements. And that number increased in the 2015-2016 academic year where 5.9 percent of student-athletes received academic waivers.

Students who are admitted below academic standards are less likely to succeed in their studies—especially given the onerous amount of time they are expected to be training or on the field. The claim that student-athletes who are severely behind their academically talented peers when entering college can generally maintain eligibility with such additional demands on their schedule is laughable.

Unless of course, academic standards are dropped or unethical special treatment is given to athletes who struggle in the classroom. If that is the case, and it was at Chapel Hill, then the mission of the university has been severely compromised.

Furthermore, academic waivers are not the only university policy in conflict with academic integrity. There are also concerns that athletics scholarships pose incentives for schools to cheat. The athletic scholarship funds athletes’ full cost of attendance, including tuition, room, and board. Since eligibility for the scholarship is determined annually by the coach and is contingent on students’ performance on the field, the stakes are extremely high for athletes who must also maintain their academic eligibility. In such an environment, either academics or athletics will likely have to give. So the system finds ways around the regulations—with every level of supposed oversight looking the other way.

Furthermore, the funding for the athletic scholarships is heavily reliant on student subsidies (students at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013, for example, paid $279 per year in student fees that go toward athletics). It is concerning that student money may be used for an activity that is not directed toward academic ends—and indeed, toward ends that may be used to undermine academic integrity.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic scandal is a dramatic (but real) example of the unsustainable balance between athletics and academics in college. The fact that the scandal occurred shouldn’t come as a surprise given the defective conditions that permitted the fraud to occur in the first place.

Indeed, the scandal is just a magnification of the smaller instances of academic dishonesty that are still present in many athletics departments. All universities have the responsibility to create an institutional framework that is directed toward academic ends. But, if a university such as UNC-Chapel Hill continues to have policies that are in direct conflict with maintaining high academic standards, then the university itself is complicit in the ensuing abuses that take place.

And, if the NCAA and the accrediting agencies continue to help sweep the corruption of their constituent institutions under the rug, then what is their purpose for existing?

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    NCAA is not sweeping anything under the rug. This is an accreditation matter, and was handled appropriately. As Wheelan said, “This issue was bigger than anything with which we’ve ever dealt, and it went on for longer than anything else. This is the first one I can recall in the 10 years I’ve been here that we put an institution on probation for academic fraud or academic integrity.”

    If the system is not working, then it needs to be changed. Right now the schools are happy (they keep paying their dues to SACS), and the students and the government is happy (Title IV funds are still being spent).

    The fact that a scandal of this magnitude continued for 18 years, undetected, is irrelevant if everyone except taxpayers and gimlet-eyed conservatives is happy.

    • jaypopecenter

      It’s hard to tell if your comment is sarcasm or not. In case it’s not, so if the Mafia is happy, the politicians on the take are happy, and the Mafia’s customers are happy, then the system is working properly? Even if the taxpayers are upset?

      Just because the NCAA rarely punishes the pervasive misconduct arising from the need to attract top athletes and keep them eligible doesn’t mean the recruitment admission, and eligibility processes for athletes aren’t frequently and systemically corrupt. The NCAA is merely a facade propped up by the universities to give the appearance of ethical propriety–and to make sure the money keeps rolling in. And the accrediting agencies aren’t much better; one is Gambino, the other is Bonanno.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        I’m not certain, either. For almost twenty years I have been interested in higher education accreditation, watching it in action. The system Congress put in place in 1992 was never fully implemented (SPREs were defunded and then repealed), but our legislators are apparently quite satisfied with what we now have.

        Neither NCAA nor SACS is a fiduciary agent; and because SACS doesn’t have fiduciary responsibilities as Title IV gatekeeper, there was no breach of fiduciary duty in the UNC-CH scandal. Title IV oversight is based on deeply flawed self-regulation and peer-review models, but there are no plausible alternatives.

        Gimlet-eyed or not, nothing can be changed.

        • ajbruno14

          What is lost is how educators cared so little for the courses student signed up to take. Why even offer courses if this is what instructors think of them?

          • George Avery

            It also shows how worthless the tenure system is, in that the faculty member involved was tenured.

    • George Avery

      Actually, no. It was definitely a violation of their By-Laws and Rules (see my comment above, and read the D-1 Bylaws for which I give a link). This was nothing more than a complete whitewash to avoid penalizing one of the big rainmaking programs generating revenue for the NCAA office.

  • disqus_nBMMez9Ikj

    So now the acceptable method of keeping “student athletes” eligible will be:
    1. Offer a no attend, no work, fake paper class.
    2. Have at least one person other than an athlete take the class (maybe a non-athlete manager of a team) to pass the “offered to other students” criteria.
    3. Have the accrediting sources ignore, or even better approve of the scheme.

    This is great until a university with less deep pockets and fewer lawyers graduated is found to be doing the same thing…and then they throw the book at them. It will likely be NC State who gets this treatment…heck their athletes go to class and get determined to be ineligible so there is that.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    Now we have a misguided attempt at reform from the Knight Commission:
    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/10/31/ncaa-president-public-losing-trust-big-time-sports
    “The Knight panel has called on the NCAA to rework the rules that allowed North Carolina to makes its own determination of whether it had committed academic fraud, and thus allowed the university to escape consequences.”

    The Knights in Shining Armour need to read the NCAA report [link above], about NCAA “purview.” Apparently, Duncan and Cartwright missed that, leaving them in the dark with their Shiny Metal Visors down.

  • George Avery

    The NCAA explanation is obviously a farce, as fraudulent courses would obviously make compliance with the academic progress rules a farce, and indicate a lack of institutional control to ensure compliance with those rules. Players who fail to earn valid credits according to the academic progress scale are ineligible to compete, and the use of ineligible players is a punishable offense. Looking through the D1 Manual, Aug 2017 edition, the actions of UNC blantantly violates the rules in so many ways. For example, By-Law 3.2.4.11 Standards states that “Active members agree to establish and maintain high standards of personal honor, eligibility and fair play.” By-Law 3.2.5.4 Failure to Satisfy the Academic Performance Program states that “A member institution may be placed in a restricted membership category if the institution or its sports team(s) has failed to comply with the established requirements of the academic performance program. (See Bylaw 14.8.)” Furthermore, By-Law 14.9.2.2 Institutional Staff Member or Representative of Athletics Interests specifically states that “A current or former institutional staff member or a representative of an institution’s athletics interests shall not be involved (with or without the knowledge of the student-athlete) in: (Adopted: 4/28/16 effective 8/1/16) (a) Academic misconduct related to a student-athlete; or (b) The alteration or falsification of a student-athlete’s transcript or academic record. ” It does not delineate that the academic misconduct can ONLY involve a student athlete. Figure 14.2 of the Division I manual specifically lays out that if a) Alteration or falsification of an academic record occurs that b) involves institutional staff and c) results in an athlete competing after the falsification, a NCAA Academic Misconduct Violation has occurred – conditions clearly met in the UNC case. No mention is made of a requirement that such falsification be limited to only athletes – but rather than any such falsification involving an athlete is a violation. Such violations are specifically listed under By-Law 19.1 as “Level I” Violations or “Severe Breach of Conduct,” and this case involves at least five aggravating factors listed in the By-Laws. According to Table 19.1 of the Division 1 manual, this should result in penalties of a 1-4 year post-season ban, a fine of the greater of $5000+ 3-5% of the annual budget of involved sports programs or loss of revenue from competition for the involved program, a loss of 10-25% of the scholarships in involved sports programs, a 3-10 year show cause order for all involved institutional personnel, Suspension of the head coach for 50-100% of a season, and a 25-60% reduction in all recruiting contacts. See the NCAA’s own By-Laws at http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/D118.pdf .

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Thank you for the link — but does the manual have to be 428 pages long???

      NCAA discriminates against non-regionally accredited schools — they are not eligible for membership! This is cited in one half-dozen places.

      As for violations, I find the NCAA to lack moral character — its own rules say that the NCAA is NOT (repeat: NOT) obligated to turn over academic violations revealed in hearings to the appropriate regional accreditor. In other words, NCAA may, at its discretion, choose to “sweep under the rug” any wrongdoing of an academic nature that falls within the jurisdiction of the regional accreditors. The schools, of course, will know about it, but they can also participate in this conspiracy of silence. Accreditors, of course, are just as rotten, morally.

      “19.9.10 Notification of Regional Accrediting Agency. In cases in which the hearing panel has found academic violations or questionable academic conduct, the NCAA president may forward a copy of the public infractions decision to the appropriate regional accrediting agency. (Revised: 0/30/12 effective 8/1/13)”

  • redweather

    Some universities, like Georgia State where I taught, make available online the grade breakout in every class taught every semester. Graduate teaching assistants are notorious for passing almost every student with an A, especially in freshman composition. Just don’t go looking into the work turned in by those students, or don’t unless you have either a very strong stomach.