NCAA stays mum on UNC scandal
Robbi Pickeral [ARCHIVE]
August 19, 2012
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. It's a sunny morning on the campus of the University of North Carolina. But at the Ernie Williamson Center, which houses the Tar Heels athletics department, a cloud won't go away -- even though it doesn't look like the NCAA is coming back.

Over the past few months, first-year athletic director Bubba Cunningham has met with admissions officers to discuss what it takes for athletes to succeed academically at UNC. He has restructured his department and hired outside the university to bring some new ideas in. He has studied majors and summer school classes, reached out to faculty and tried to start mending the rift between athletics and academics.

But in the wake of major NCAA sanctions levied against UNC's football program, followed by a separate academic scandal involving the African and Afro-American Studies Department, a storm still lingers.

"We had some major violations, and I thought when we got the final report [from the NCAA] in March, that would be the end of it,'' said Cunningham, who was hired last October. "But the internal dialogue about how we're going to balance academics and athletics has lasted a lot longer publicly than I thought."

And for good reason.

Five months ago, the NCAA imposed a one-year postseason ban and scholarship reductions on UNC's football program as penalty for improper benefits and academic misconduct involving a tutor. That was on top of the school's self-imposed penalties, which included 16 vacated wins, probation, the firing of football coach Butch Davis and the resignation of AD Dick Baddour after a 2010 season that saw 14 players miss at least one game.

But as an offshoot of the NCAA investigation, a UNC internal probe found that 54 AFAM classes were either "aberrant" or "irregularly" taught from summer 2007 to summer 2011. That included unauthorized grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time.

UNC, which issued its report on the AFAM probe in May, says no student received a grade without submitting written work. But more than 50 percent of the students in those suspect classes were athletes. As first reported by the (Raleigh) News & Observer, one class last summer had an enrollment of 19 -- 18 football players and one former football player.

Then late last month, a faculty committee looking into the scandal issued a new report stating that academic counselors assigned to the athletes might have pushed them into those classes.

"Although we may never know for certain, it was our impression from multiple interviews that a department staff member managed to use the system to help players by directing them to enroll in classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department that turned out to be aberrant or irregularly taught,'' the report said. "We were told that athletes claimed they had been sent to Julius Nyang'oro [who taught 45 of the suspect classes] by the ASPSA (Academic Support Program for Student Athletes). This raises the question of whether they could also have been sent to other departments by [academic support] counselors."

Where's the NCAA?

Cunningham knows the situation looks bad because it is bad, but insists that it's an institutional, and not an NCAA, concern.

The school has confirmed that every student (and student-athlete) who got a grade in the suspect classes turned in assigned work, he said. The classes were open to all students, he added.

The faculty report stated that "there was a clear finding that only the former [AFAM] chair Julius Nyang'oro and Deborah Crowder, a former staff member, had been involved in problems with the courses in the department." (Nyang'oro, was forced to retire, while Crowder retired in 2009.)

And the NCAA was informed about the AFAM matter before it ruled back in March, Cunningham said -- even about that class filled with football players.

"We've looked at it very closely, we've tried to keep in contact with the NCAA and keep them advised of everything, as you generally do,'' he said. "Since it's both students and student-athletes, we feel pretty confident that it's not an [NCAA] issue."


The NCAA's rule on academic fraud falls under "Unethical Conduct" and states, fairly vaguely:

"(b) Knowing involvement in arranging for fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts for a prospective or enrolled student athlete."

According to an email from NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn, academic fraud is an NCAA matter:

"Anytime a[n athletics] staff member knowingly is involved in arranging fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts for a prospective or enrolled student-athlete, regardless of whether the institutional staff member acted alone or in concert with the prospective or enrolled student-athlete.

"When a student-athlete, acting alone or in concert with others, knowingly becomes involved in arranging fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts, regardless of whether such conduct results in an erroneous declaration of eligibility."

If a student-athlete commits an academic offense (such as cheating on a test or plagiarism on a term paper) with no involvement of an institutional staff member, she added, "it would not fall under NCAA rules unless the academic offense results in an erroneous declaration of eligibility and the student-athlete subsequently competes for the institution."

UNC said there are no eligibility issues related to AFAM.

The NCAA typically doesn't comment on why it investigates (or doesn't investigate) specific cases. But the key to the rule when it comes to UNC, according to people with knowledge of NCAA enforcement, is who was involved in making the classes "suspect." If a professor is not teaching or grading a course properly, the NCAA deems that a university issue. If a professor is not teaching or grading appropriately because a coach or member of the athletics department told him or her not to, then the NCAA becomes involved.

Thus, although it's eyebrow-raising, the "clustering" of a high number of athletes in the same course or major doesn't on its face break NCAA rules. For example, the NCAA showed little interest when the Ann Arbor News reported in 2008 that 85 percent of 294 independent studies courses a Michigan psychology professor taught over a three-year period was comprised of athletes.

We've looked at it very closely, we've tried to keep in contact with the NCAA and keep them advised of everything, as you generally do. Since it's both students and student-athletes, we feel pretty confident that it's not an [NCAA] issue.

--North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham

And the NCAA found Auburn University committed only minor violations after the New York Times reported that 18 members of the undefeated 2004 football team took 97 hours of...
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