The UNC Scandal: Will The Penalties Live Up To The Hype?

August 17th, 2017 | by Dan Matheson
The UNC Scandal: Will The Penalties Live Up To The Hype?

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is finally appearing before the NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI) to adjudicate its “academic irregularities” case (UNC’s lingo, not mine).  The highly publicized case involved thousands of UNC students, including an unusually high percentage of student-athletes, over 18 years taking “paper” classes in the department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFRI/AFAM) that required little or no work and awarded high grades.  While many, such as University of Maryland president Wallace Loh and journalist John Feinstein, believe it is obvious that the COI should come down hard on UNC (Loh even suggested the NCAA could assign a “death penalty” sanction), cases involving alleged academic misconduct are rarely as easy to resolve as the public believes they should be.  I spent time reviewing the UNC public case documents this week and will provide analysis below on some of the issues from my perspective as a former member of the NCAA enforcement staff.  

A significant challenge in processing academic misconduct cases is determining when misconduct crosses the line to become an NCAA issue and collecting the necessary evidence to prove it.  Student-athlete cheating and other forms of academic misconduct are usually handled by schools internally through standard campus procedures for dealing with such matters.  Academic misconduct is not typically processed as an NCAA violation unless someone from the school (e.g. coach, academic advisor, professor) is involved.  In November 2016, the COI provided all parties in the UNC case with guidance on this standard by clarifying that the NCAA infractions process should not be used to address the quality and content of academic courses but that the COI may preside over a case when a department or staff member inappropriately assists with student-athlete academic eligibility.

In the UNC case, the quality and content of the courses were what originally caught the attention of the school and the NCAA.  The AFRI/AFAM courses that UNC student-athletes and non-athletes took were discovered to be so academically inadequate for such a long period of time that the school’s regional accrediting body placed the entire institution on probation.  But student-athletes taking what amounted to bogus courses for high grades would ordinarily not be punished by the NCAA unless there was solid evidence of a scheme by school personnel to assist the student-athletes in cutting corners academically, such as someone in the AFRI/AFAM department establishing the bogus courses specifically to help student-athletes raise their grades.

The evidence of inappropriate institutional assistance that the enforcement staff cited in its case against UNC to establish this as a COI matter involves such things as:

  • Easier access for student-athletes to the “anomalous” courses (enforcement staff’s lingo, not mine) through two AFRI/AFAM department employees, one of whom worked closely with the athletics academic support staff to enroll student-athletes, leading to as many as 47 percent of enrollees being student-athletes over about a nine-year period.
  • Athletics academic support staff performing course-related tasks that students should have to perform for themselves, such as obtaining assignments, suggesting assignments, turning in papers and requesting certain grades in courses.
  • A women’s basketball academic counselor who added content to student-athlete papers, provided a student-athlete with a completed quiz to use in a course, and requested grades for two student-athletes.

The third bullet above involving the women’s basketball academic counselor is the easiest to confirm as an NCAA violation, if the evidence presented during the hearing supports it.  The first two bullets above are more challenging, and they are the underpinnings of the case.  If the Committee on Infractions does not agree with the enforcement staff that the high level of cooperation between the AFRI/AFAM department and the athletics department provided the serious impermissible extra benefits that the enforcement staff alleges, then the school might escape significant penalties.  

I had a couple observations after reviewing case documents:

  • In its written case against UNC, the enforcement staff stated that the school “exploited” the AFRI/AFAM courses by using them to help maintain student-athlete eligibility.  That section of the document seems to suggest that there was something wrong with academic advisors directing student-athletes to courses that the advisors knew were easy.  In my opinion, it is not an NCAA violation for athletics academic advisors to steer student-athletes toward easy classes.  Academic advisors help all students, both athletes and non-athletes, schedule strategically by considering many factors, including the academic rigor required in a certain course or by a certain professor, when deciding which courses to take each semester.  If that aspect of what the UNC advisors did is considered impermissible exploitation, then shouldn’t every school be guilty of the same misconduct when an academic advisor steers a struggling student-athlete toward a semester schedule loaded with physical activity and other fluff courses?  Would every school be guilty of the same misconduct when an academic advisor steers a student-athlete toward a less rigorous academic major that will fit better with the demands of being an athlete?  Such scenarios happen routinely, so I am curious to see how the COI evaluates that accusation by the enforcement staff.
  • The guidance that the COI provided the parties in November, paraphrased above, was, “The NCAA’s constitution and bylaws do not generally contemplate the infractions process addressing quality and content assessments regarding academic courses.”  While the enforcement staff was careful up front in its written arguments to frame its case against UNC as “not about so-called fake classes or easy courses,” it seems impossible to remove the theme of easy courses from the allegations and the enforcement staff’s arguments.  Let’s face it, if the UNC athletics academic advisors had instead leveraged relationships with the Biology department to enroll student-athletes at a higher-than-usual rate in academically rigorous science courses, there would be no investigation.  The enforcement staff’s allegations and arguments in the case hinge on the academic rigor of the courses, as evidenced by the enforcement staff’s references to “little, if any, attendance and minimal to no interaction with the faculty,” “lax paper writing standards,” and “artificially high final grades.”  

A key element of the enforcement staff’s argument is that since the courses were easy, academic advisors leveraged their relationships in the AFRI/AFAM department to enroll student-athletes in the courses to help keep them academically eligible.  Additionally, the enforcement staff emphasized that the easy courses gave student-athletes an advantage by being able to spend more time on their sport than peers at other institutions who did not have access to such easy courses.  I do not know if this will make a difference for the COI when evaluating the case, but the enforcement staff could face questions on how its stated position that the case is “not about so-called fake classes or easy courses” and its arguments emphasizing the ease of the courses can be reconciled.

“Unlike many extra benefit cases that involve specific and identifiable student-athletes, this case presents systemic problems that resulted in institutional administrators providing extra benefits to a population of student-athletes over the course of nearly 10 years.  In light of how the violations unfolded, the passage of time and the lack of personally identifying information in the institution’s records, it is not possible to specifically list each student-athlete who received an extra benefit.  The enforcement staff appreciates the challenge this presents in fashioning penalties.”

It will be interesting to see how the COI deals with this.  If the COI agrees with the enforcement staff that violations occurred, developing appropriate penalties could be tricky without knowing which student-athletes were involved and exactly what they received in impermissible extra benefits.

When evaluating the enforcement staff’s case against UNC, it is important to understand that in November 2016, the COI essentially told the enforcement staff to take another stab at writing its notice of allegations (NOA).  In 2015, the enforcement staff issued its original NOA, but the case was reopened later that year because of new information, and the enforcement staff issued an amended NOA in 2016 that removed significant allegations of possible violations.  In response to that amended NOA, the COI stated, in part, “[T]he panel requests that the enforcement staff review whether the potential violations, in this case, are alleged in a fashion to best decide this case.”  The COI went on to suggest that it wanted a beefed up notice of allegations.  Thus, the enforcement staff went back to the drawing board to develop its best possible allegations under the circumstances.  This does not mean that the COI has made up its mind about the case.  It only means the COI wanted an allegation related to the many years of easy classes taken by student-athletes so the COI could at least have a chance to consider it as a violation.

The limited evidence currently available for public viewing appears to support an allegation that athletics department staff had unusual levels of involvement in the AFRI/AFAM courses taken by student-athletes, but I have some doubts about the egregiousness of that involvement, so my prediction is that the COI penalties will fall far short of what many are anticipating.

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 NCAA associate director of enforcement and the New York Yankees baseball operations director. He serves on Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics and is a dynamic keynote speaker and panelist who has received multiple teaching honors.

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