The UNC Infractions Case: Answering Readers’ Questions

September 6th, 2017 | by Dan Matheson
The UNC Infractions Case:  Answering Readers’ Questions
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I recently analyzed the NCAA infractions case against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and predicted the penalties handed down by the NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI) will end up being lighter than expected by many fans, media members, and athletics administrators.  After receiving dozens of questions and comments about the case from readers, I decided to write a follow-up piece that answers the five main categories of questions I received from readers.  I encourage you to read my original story, found at the link above, before diving into the questions below:

1) The majority of the questions I received had to do with a perceived double standard by the NCAA.  

One reader’s question summed this up best: “A number of schools…have courses for athletes only, generally conducted by athletic personnel, that provide for academic credit and GPA calculation.  Given the allegations by the NCAA against UNC, how are these ‘athlete only’ classes, with no academic requirements, in compliance with NCAA rules?  For instance, Gonzaga has a course for basketball players only and the instructor is listed as Mark Few.  Can you provide an explanation and/or NCAA reasoning that these courses are legitimate given the allegations against UNC?”  

This question is about academic credit that many schools provide to varsity athletes for being a varsity athlete.  For example, as the reader’s question pointed out, Gonzaga University offers one credit hour in the Physical Education program to varsity athletes, such as EDPE 154 “Varsity Volleyball,” which is restricted to “members of the varsity volleyball team only.”  Gonzaga is not alone in offering such credit to its athletes.

The short answer is that there are differences in the way the NCAA views the UNC courses that are the subject of the infractions case and the P.E. activity courses for varsity athletes found at many schools.  My longer explanation of that difference is below.

If a university accepts a course as legitimate, the NCAA does not get into evaluating the academic rigor of the course.  The NCAA has oversight over athletically related matters and is not an academic accrediting body.  When Gonzaga, or any other school, awards P.E. credit for participating in varsity athletics, the school has presumably accepted that a semester of practice, competition and coaching at the college varsity level is worthy of being considered a physical education activity course.  This is an institutional decision and, in my opinion, is defensible.  Gonzaga, for example, offers several other P.E. activity courses that are unrelated to varsity athletics participation.  For instance, EDPE 102 “Basketball and Softball” awards one credit hour and has the following course description:  “This class will provide students with a progressive sequence of skills and activities designed to offer a basic understanding in both Basketball and Softball. Game strategies, techniques, terminology, rules, and safety will be covered in this class. Students will participate in organized games and skill competitions against classmates.”

While I have not witnessed Gonzaga’s EDPE 102 class, I am willing to bet that the student-athletes who practice, compete and are coached on the varsity basketball or softball teams at Gonzaga engage in higher-level activities than those that the students in EDPE 102 engage in.  Moreover, there is no deception involved – the university has accepted that varsity participation is sufficiently comparable to a P.E. activity course and is deserving of the same academic credit.  The NCAA respects those institutional decisions about how to award academic credit as long as it adheres to ordinary university standards in making such decisions.

The difference in the UNC case is that there was deception involved by an academic department, so UNC did not approve of the courses as taught.  For instance, UNC’s independent investigator Kenneth Wainstein identified one example of a “paper class” format that did not deliver what the academic department advertised to the institution:  “The second brand of paper classes is the lecture paper class, which was a course section that bore a number and title of a traditional lecture course but was taken as an independent study without faculty supervision or oversight. These were designated as traditional lecture classes with required class attendance, readings, examinations and other assignments, but they never actually met for class and required only the submission of a paper, which was graded by [Deborah] Crowder [a non-faculty member who served as a secretary and administrator] and typically received nothing lower than an A or a B….Between 1999, when the first lecture paper class was offered, and Crowder’s retirement in 2009, a total of 186 lecture paper classes were offered with a total of 3,906 undergraduate enrollments in those classes.”

Wainstein identified several other examples of questionable class formats during his investigation.  As UNC acknowledged in its response to the NCAA allegations, the questionable courses involved “serious academic failings” that led to the institution being placed on probation by its regional accrediting body.  There are clearly important distinctions to make between the UNC “paper classes” and P.E. activity courses at other schools for varsity athletics participation, despite the efforts of many fans and media members to draw parallels between them.

Just because I am distinguishing the UNC paper classes from P.E. activity classes at other schools does not mean I am arguing that the UNC classes should serve as the basis for NCAA violations.  As I pointed out in my original story, the COI clarified that the NCAA infractions process should be used to review inappropriate assistance by a department or staff member in helping a student-athlete achieve academic eligibility, not to review the quality and content of academic courses.  I noted in my original story that I believed the NCAA enforcement staff’s allegations were based too heavily on the quality and content of the paper classes.


2) “I would like to know what the NCAA can do to UNC with their charges against Debbie Crowder and Julius Nyang’oro for not cooperating with the NCAA investigation?”

The answer is that nothing will happen to UNC based on Crowder, the former department administrator, or Nyang’oro, the former professor, refusing to comply with interview requests.  There were five enforcement staff allegations against UNC.  Two of those allegations were against Crowder and Nyang’oro for violation of the NCAA principles of ethical conduct for refusing to provide information relevant to possible violations in an NCAA investigation.  Based on the case filings available in the public record, the school worked cooperatively with the NCAA to attempt to get Crowder and Nyang’oro to cooperate with NCAA interviews when requested (Crowder eventually submitted to an interview months after the enforcement staff had issued its final amended allegations in the case).

UNC could have faced penalties on this issue if it had, for example, disagreed with the enforcement staff over the need to interview Crowder or Nyang’oro during the investigation and refused to assist the NCAA in its attempts to persuade the reluctant parties to cooperate.

 

3) Do you have an opinion on the makeup of the COI?

Not an opinion, but I do have an explanation of who is on the COI deciding the fate of schools and coaches in infractions cases.  NCAA Bylaw 19.3.1 contains the guidelines for the composition of the COI.  The COI contains up to 24 members, but all 24 do not hear each case.  When a hearing is scheduled, a hearing panel consisting of 5-7 COI members is assembled from the group of 24 to hear the case and render a decision (Bylaw 19.3.3).  

According to Bylaw 19.3.1, the COI should include members from each of the following categories:

– Current or former college or university presidents, chancellors or other senior institutional administrators;

– Current or former directors of athletics;

– Former NCAA coaches;

– Representatives from conference offices;

– University staff or faculty;

– Athletics administrators with compliance experience;

– Members of the general public with formal legal training who are not associated with a college, conference, or professional or similar sports organization and who do not represent coaches or athletes in any capacity.

 


4) Why is the case based on extra benefits rather than academic fraud?

Several readers expressed confusion over the NCAA bylaws that the enforcement staff alleged UNC violated and the language used to describe those violations.  The confusion stems largely, I believe, from the fact that the allegations dealing with questionable courses and impermissible academic assistance cite violations of “extra benefits,” while media coverage and public discussion surrounding the case have revolved around the “academic fraud” scandal at UNC.  

The simple answer to this question is that the UNC case definitely involves alleged academic improprieties, but at the time of the alleged violations at UNC, there was no NCAA “academic fraud” bylaw to cite.  When the enforcement staff alleged academic misconduct in the past, it was typically done by citing a combination of NCAA Bylaws 10.1 (Unethical Conduct) and 16.11.2.1 (Extra Benefits).  As defined in NCAA Bylaw 16.02.3, an “extra benefit” is any special arrangement by a school employee or booster to provide a student-athlete, or their family or friends, with a benefit that is not authorized under NCAA bylaws and is not generally available to the school’s students, or a particular segment of the students (e.g. international students) or their family or friends, on a basis unrelated to athletics ability.

So if the admissions office hands out gift bags to all freshmen during orientation, including the student-athletes in the crowd, those would be a permissible benefit.  But if a booster hands out gift bags to the football team’s starting quarterback and offensive linemen because the booster wants to reward them for how well they played in the big game last weekend, those would be an impermissible extra benefit.

Impermissible academic assistance can be considered a special arrangement to provide a student-athlete with a benefit that is not permitted under the NCAA rules and is not generally available to other non-athletes (depending on the facts of a particular case).  As one might expect, such behavior would also be considered “unethical conduct” under NCAA Bylaw 10.1.

Bylaw 10.1 specifically identifies several categories of unethical behavior, such as providing a student-athlete an extra benefit or knowingly providing false information during an NCAA investigation.  But unethical conduct is not limited by the specific categories laid out in the bylaw.  The enforcement staff can use Bylaw 10.1 to cite any behavior that it can argue qualifies as unethical conduct, and involvement in academic misconduct has traditionally fallen into that category.

For example, as an NCAA associate director of enforcement, I processed a case with Fresno State University that involved a men’s basketball team statistician writing papers for players at the request of, and with payment from, the team’s academic advisor.  That allegation cited unethical conduct and extra benefits violations.  Similarly, the Georgia Southern University infractions case decided in 2016 involved athletics department staff members providing impermissible academic assistance to student-athletes and also cited the same unethical conduct and extra benefits violations.

For future academic misconduct cases, the NCAA enforcement staff has new bylaws to work with that were adopted in 2016 and specifically address the behavior, which should help athletics administrators, media members and the public better understand such charges.  NCAA Bylaw 14.02.10 now defines impermissible academic assistance, and Bylaw 14.9.2 addresses academic misconduct involving an enrolled student-athlete.

5) A final issue that caused confusion and concern for some readers had to do with the COI essentially directing the enforcement staff to amend its allegations a second time.  

As I indicated in my original story, the enforcement staff’s Notice of Allegations (NOA) in 2015 included violations involving the many years of “paper classes” discussed above.  After the enforcement staff reopened its investigation to consider new information, the result was an amended NOA in 2016 that removed allegations having to do with the paper classes.  The COI responded by strongly suggesting that the paper classes be put back into the NOA.  As I explained in my original story, this only meant that the COI wanted a chance to review what had been the heart of the case for several years and had already caused an academic accrediting body to put the school on probation.  In a case that has some college athletics officials calling for a “death penalty” violation, it is understandable that the members of the COI encouraged the enforcement staff to give them a chance to consider whether there were any NCAA violations involving the paper classes.  I do not believe the COI’s actions indicated that it had prejudged the case in any way – the COI is under no obligation to assign a penalty just because the enforcement staff makes an allegation, and it is up to the COI to use its discretion when deciding on the seriousness of any penalties it does assign.

It should be several more weeks before the COI issues its decision in this case.  No matter what the penalties end up being, there is sure to be a passionate response from one side or the other.  Since my original story appeared on this website, I have received reactions ranging from refusal by Carolina fans to accept that there was academic deficiency in the courses that got UNC in trouble with accreditors to athletics administrators who believe the COI should ban UNC from multiple years of future championships and take down all the school’s championship banners.

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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