The UNC Decision: What Happened?

October 16th, 2017 | by Dan Matheson
The UNC Decision:  What Happened?
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UNC

In August when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill appeared before the NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI) to defend itself against allegations of NCAA violations involving “academic irregularities,” I predicted on this site that the penalties would end up falling “far short” of the gloom-and-doom scenario that many expected.  On Friday of last week, the COI issued its report in the case, which contained no penalties at all for UNC – just a couple of meaningless individual penalties for non-athletics employees.  After years of reading headlines such as, “Maryland president suggests ‘death penalty’ for UNC over academic investigation,” and, “NCAA Must Hammer UNC for Academic Fraud,” many college athletics officials, media members and fans were confused and upset by the outcome.

Agree or disagree with the decision, it ultimately hinged on three key factors:  1) a lack of specific evidence, 2) the NCAA’s deference to schools on matters of academic fraud combined with UNC’s assertion that the questionable courses that led to the allegations did not violate institutional academic policies at the time, and 3) the fact that non-athlete students took the courses along with student-athletes and received the same treatment as the athletes.  Specifically, the COI explained in its public report that the following was determined during the hearing:

1) There was not an effort to create and offer the questionable UNC courses as part of a scheme to benefit only student-athletes.

2) The information presented cited “broad concepts” of extra benefits provided by the UNC student-athlete academic support staff, but there was a failure to “establish specific or systemic activities limited to student-athletes” necessary to conclude that athletes received impermissible extra support unavailable to non-athletes.

3) In the questionable courses, “work was assigned, completed and graded, and the grades counted towards a UNC degree,” the courses violated no UNC policy (according to the school), and the record of information was “stale and incomplete” and did not contain information needed to evaluate specific courses and assignments, if the COI had wanted to do so.      

4) Concerning an individual who had been an instructor and academic counselor for student-athletes and allegedly provided impermissible academic assistance, there were “gaps in the record” that made it difficult for the COI to make an academic judgment on the appropriateness of her actions with student-athletes.

The lack of specific evidence cited by the COI was an issue because the case involved violations alleged to have happened many years ago.  The student-athletes who took the classes graduated and are no longer obligated to cooperate with NCAA investigations.  There was a lack of available documentation and an inability to get key witnesses to participate in enforcement staff interviews.  The NCAA does not have the subpoena power that courts of law and government agencies have, and that is often an obstacle to collecting the level of evidence necessary to prove violations in cases.

Concerning the NCAA’s deference to schools on matters of academic fraud, the COI stated, “the question whether academic fraud occurred is one appropriately answered by institutions based on their own academic policies.”  This has to do with the evaluation of courses.  The NCAA is not an academic accreditation body and does not have the ability or authority to determine whether courses contain appropriate levels of academic rigor.  That does not mean the COI cannot charge schools with academic misconduct.  The COI could make a determination that, for example, employees at a school engaged in activities intended to make student-athletes eligible when the student-athletes had not earned their eligibility.  For instance, if an academic advisor writes a paper for a student-athlete, if an instructor changes a student-athlete’s grade in order to help the athlete become academically eligible to compete, if a coach pressures an instructor to make special accommodations for a student-athlete, the COI could assign penalties.  But the COI does not crossover and make decisions that courses taken by student-athletes are “too easy,” especially if the same courses were available to non-athletes and there was insufficient evidence to prove the courses were created as part of a scheme to make student-athletes eligible.  


The COI noted that it had concerns about UNC shifting its position on the validity of the questionable courses.  UNC presented its independent investigation of the possible academic fraud, known as the Cadwalader report, to its academic accreditors as credible information to rely upon.  UNC even used the words “academic fraud” when describing the conduct in its report to accreditors.  But in front of the COI, UNC disavowed the Cadwalader report and attacked its accuracy.  In its report, the COI called out UNC for its flip-flopping but in the end noted that the record of information in the case could not support the COI overriding UNC’s final position that the courses did not violate any UNC academic policies in place at the time of the courses.  As the COI stated in its decision, the lack of specific evidence made it impossible for the COI to charge UNC with academic fraud, a step the COI could have taken based on its reading of the evidence even though the NCAA enforcement staff did not make an academic fraud allegation.  The COI report stated, “[T]he case record…included information spanning nearly two decades and interviews where subjects had difficulty recalling circumstances and events.  This lack of specificity inhibited the (COI’s) ability to test and probe certain theories.  Therefore, the (COI) cannot confirm the allegations and conclude that academic fraud occurred.  Further, the record’s limitations did not establish a firm basis for the panel issuing new allegations.”  

I believe the NCAA enforcement staff knew this case was flawed all along but was pushed to pursue it by pressure within the NCAA membership that manifested in pressure from the COI (and probably from NCAA leadership, such as the Board of Governors) and pressure created by the damning and public nature of the findings in the Cadwalader report.  The enforcement staff made a decision in 2011 to not pursue the academic fraud allegations while investigating another UNC infractions case.  The enforcement staff must make such decisions all the time when investigating cases.  The staff conducted 16 interviews in 2011 related to the academic fraud concerns and clearly made a determination that the information did not amount to violations.  Later, when UNC discovered and reported more information about the integrity of the questionable courses after receiving the Cadwalader report, the enforcement staff performed a more thorough investigation with UNC.  The enforcement staff ultimately made allegations of violations but eventually amended those to reduce them significantly.  The COI responded by essentially directing the enforcement staff to amend the allegations a second time so the COI members would have a chance during the hearing to consider the most serious information in the Cadwalader report about widespread academic fraud that went on for nearly two decades.  It appears the enforcement staff read the case correctly from the start.  As I pointed out in my previous story on the case, some of the enforcement staff’s arguments in the second amended allegations seemed to be stretching, which suggested to me that they were making their best possible arguments to satisfy the COI’s desire to consider all possible violations in the case, but without the evidence to support them.

Finally, it is important to note that Greg Sankey, Southeastern Conference Commissioner and the COI Chief Hearing Officer assigned to the UNC case, oversaw this hearing that resulted in no penalties.  Prior to the hearing, there were suggestions that Sankey would bring personal bias to the case.  Some readers of my previous articles stated on social media and through email they were certain that Sankey had prejudged the case and could not be impartial as a commissioner of a rival conference.  Clearly, nothing could have been further from the truth – this decision proves that the COI considered the case based on the record of information created in written submissions and during the hearing and on its application of NCAA legislation to the facts.

Dan Matheson About Dan Matheson
Dan Matheson, J.D., is director of the University of Iowa Sport & Recreation Management program. Prior to joining the Iowa faculty, Matheson was an associate director of enforcement for the NCAA and the baseball operations director for the New York Yankees. He currently serves on Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics and is a dynamic keynote speaker and panelist who has received multiple teaching honors at Iowa. https://danmatheson.wixsite.com/sportbusiness

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