College Sports

UNC Blames Its Academic Scandal On Fake News

The latest in a years-long saga alleging the university propped up athletes' grades to keep them eligible

College Sports
The Gonzaga Bulldogs play the North Carolina Tar Heels in April 2017 — USA Today Sports
May 26, 2017 at 11:19 AM ET

The University of North Carolina’s athletic department sponsors one of the most successful men’s basketball programs in the country—the Tar Heels have won six national titles, including last month’s—and for six years has been plagued by what some have called the worst academic scandal in NCAA history. For about a decade, athletes are said to have benefited from GPA-boosting marks in no-show classes sponsored by the Africa and Afro-American Studies department.

Now, in UNC’s latest rebuttal in the protracted saga of allegations and responses, the school is trying to re-frame the issue by claiming the problem is an academic one, not an athletic one. The very lawyerly defense states that, as such, this falls outside the purview of the jurisdiction of the NCAA, an athletic governing body. The key line: “Because the issue of the Courses is an academic issue, the University denies that there were NCAA violations.”

But that oversimplifies matters and neglects the allegations that the professors of the sham classes “worked closely and directly with athletics.” As the NCAA wrote back in December, “student-athletes were afforded greater access to the anomalous courses and enrolled in these courses at a disproportionately higher rate than students who were not athletes. Many at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football and men’s basketball, used these courses for purposes of continuing their NCAA academic eligibility.”

Furthermore, the university argued, UNC student-athletes were not the exclusive beneficiaries of these classes, saying that they comprised only 29.4 percent of the course takers. In other words, the defense goes, “Student-athletes were not treated differently than other students who took the Courses.”

Oh, and the coup de grace of it all is 2017’s obligatory fake news assertion: “The public narrative for the last six years, popularized by media accounts . . . is wrong.”

While the university president of a former conference rival—Maryland’s Wallace Loh—said last month that he’d expect a “death penalty” punishment for UNC, terminating an athletic team or program now, in 2017, over allegations that purportedly started in 2002 but ended in 2011 is total overkill with no benefits to anyone.

But the NCAA has charged that “many at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football and men’s basketball, used these courses for purposes of ensuring their continuing NCAA academic eligibility,” including players from UNC’s 2005 hoops championship squad. That shouldn’t be entirely overlooked either.

At the same time, however, the NCAA, for good reason, has always steered clear of making determinations on a course’s academic value. So UNC’s argument—which effectively is an admission that these courses were less than rigorous but open to all students and not explicitly sponsored by the athletic department—might work by the technicalities of NCAA rules. The school makes clear that there is no specific NCAA bylaw governing such a case, while touting the prior implementation “over 70 reforms and initiatives to make certain that the academic irregularities that occurred will not take place again.” The real oversight body, UNC says, is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Committee on Colleges.

Conveniently for UNC is that, last we checked, the SACSCC has never killed an athletic program or forced a national basketball title to be vacated.

UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham has said the university won’t apply any self-imposed sanctions, which has been a favored route of other schools to set the parameters of their punishments. “The fundamental issue in our case is that NCAA bylaws cover athletics matters, not how academics are managed,” he told reporters on Thursday.

There’s little dispute that something untoward happened — just a question of under whose jurisdiction that falls. UNC’s hope is that effective lawyering will help the school skirt all repercussions from the NCAA even if, as the News & Observer’s Luke Decock writes, the infractions committee is “both judge and prosecutor.”

The NCAA’s third and most recent notice of allegations includes such charges as the offering of impossible benefits and just about the gravest accusation the NCAA has: lack of institutional control. Surely the NCAA will see to it that some sort of penalty is imposed given the gravity of the allegation and the defiance of UNC’s defense, even if the NCAA’s authority on the issue is debatable.

But, as SI’s Andy Stapes aptly noted, such NCAA reviews are “a process famous for being made up as it goes along,” so there’s really no use in predicting what will happen.