How did North Carolina escape harsh NCAA penalties after Syracuse got hammered?

The NCAA found that North Carolina’s athletic programs benefited from 17 years of sub-standard classes. It offered no substantial punishments.(

During a conference call with reporters following the release of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions report, chairman Greg Sankey acknowledged the NCAA believes that North Carolina athletes received fraudulent credit, and that the fraudulent credit was used to keep them eligible.

Yet, somehow the NCAA failed to deliver substantial sanctions to UNC after 18 years of sub-standard classes, saving its lone penalties for two relatively unknown individuals for a failure to cooperate with the investigation.

“I think it’s important to understand that the panel is in no way supporting what happened,” Sankey said on Friday. “What happened was troubling. I think that’s been acknowledged by many parties. But the panel applied the bylaws to the facts, albeit at times, positions shifted and we were skeptical of positions taken. The panel couldn’t conclude violations. That’s reality.”

The reality then, is that the largest and most offensive academic scandal in the history of college sports occurred at North Carolina. Everyone acknowledges it. Yet, the NCAA handed out virtually no punishment.

How could they justify that, particularly when the organization has come down so much harder on schools displaying less problematic behaviors?

Below is a simplified version of the NCAA Committee on Infractions explanation on why it did not find violations in the three main charges by its enforcement unit.

Feel free to poke holes in the arguments. There are many.

Academic fraud

When it began looking into the issue at its school, North Carolina termed what had occurred “academic fraud.” The phrase was used throughout a report to the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges.

In correspondence with the NCAA, however, North Carolina gradually eliminated that phrase from its responses, ultimately deciding that what occurred wasn’t academic fraud after all.

Why?

Well the NCAA rules, as created by school presidents who have little interest in actually being investigated, stipulate that determining academic fraud lies outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction.

So, while the NCAA can punish schools when academic fraud occurs, it has no actual power to determine if it occurs.

In Syracuse’s case in 2015, SU determined through its standard process that academic fraud had been committed by Fab Melo when he turned in work done for him by director of basketball operations Stan Kissel.

The school reported it to the NCAA as the school is supposed to. Syracuse’s reward was getting punished.

North Carolina, meanwhile, denied that what occurred was academic fraud and the NCAA’s enforcement group was hamstrung by the limited powers that schools have permitted them.

“The NCAA defers to academies on matters of academic fraud,” the NCAA report said. “As institutions of higher education, the NCAA membership trusts fellow members to hold themselves accountable in matters of academic integrity.”

Sankey said the NCAA enforcement group felt forced to take North Carolina at its word.

“What ultimately matters is what UNC says about the course,” the Committee on Infractions report said. “In addition to rejecting its early admissions and distancing itself from the report in the infractions process, UNC took the firm position that the courses were permissible.”

Impermissible benefits

While the NCAA might be forced to take the word of institutions regarding fraud, it frequently circumvents this reality by charging schools with providing impermissible benefits.

At Syracuse this occurred with three athletes who had work done for them by a basketball secretary and a tutor to help keep them eligible.

The enforcement staff made a similar charge against North Carolina. It was rejected.

The enforcement staff’s argument revolved around the idea that a disproportionate number of students who took the class were athletes.

Word of the classes spread through the group tasked with UNC’s academic support for athletes, as well as through Deborah Crowder, a secretary who graded the coursework and word-of-mouth.

But Crowder described to the NCAA a desire to help struggling students in general, and the classes consisted of students who needed extra help, both athletes and non-athletes.

“While student-athletes certainly benefited from the course and assistance, the record supported the former secretary’s position and did not establish that the courses were created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to impermissibly benefit student-athletes,” Sankey said.

Ultimately, it appears, those non-athlete students were enough for the NCAA to justify not charging North Carolina.

“There are clear indications of processes and opportunities to access those courses,” Sankey said. “Do I assume everyone on campus would have access? No. But there were opportunities present in different ways.”

Skeptical? Us too.

In what seemed like a very clear-cut impermissible benefit to an outsider, a university-commissioned report (Wainstein report) recounted academic advisors suggesting to Crowder the grades players needed to remain eligible.

Common sense suggests someone negotiating a grade on your behalf is a benefit not available to the general student body.

While the NCAA report did not include that claim directly, it noted that North Carolina discredited the report by showing inaccuracies in it.

“The panel. … is skeptical of UNC’s recent complete repudiation of the (Wainstein) report,” the NCAA wrote. “After all, less than three years ago, UNC described the report as ‘monumental’ and ‘critical.’ … However, the panel ackonowledges that the firm conducted interviews without the participation of UNC or the enforcement staff, some interviewees acknowledged they felt inimidated or questioned how the information they provided was characterized in the report. Futher, at the hearing, the parties identified potential factual inaccuraccies. In light of these considerations, the panel balanced the weight of the report against the record and other information presetented at the hearing.”

Lack of institutional control or failure to monitor

Sankey said most of the conversation in the Committee on Infractions meeting centered on the idea of charging North Carolina with a lack of instiutional contol or a failure to monitor its athletic department, two charges levied at Syracuse.

In the report, the Committee on Infractions curiously notes that the school “appears to neither have had administrative control of the paper courses,” a phrase awfully close to “lack of institutional control.”

Strangely, though, the NCAA’s infractions group leveled neither charge.

The NCAA Committee on Infractions ultimately decided that the classes did not expressly violate the university’s rules on academics and that the issues at the university were academic in nature, rather than athletic.

Similarly to its standing on fraud, the NCAA argued that its jurisdiction lies not in determining whether a school’s academic rules are appropriate, but whether thay have been violated.

North Carolina, acknowledged many problems with the classes, but no rules violations.

The classes did not meet. They required just a paper to earn a grade. That paper was frequently graded, often easily, by a department seceratary who did not always read them fully.

UNC Chancellor Carol Holt acknowledged they did not meet the school’s expectations. But, at the time, North Carolina had no rules against structuring or grading classes that way.

“UNC stressed at the infractions hearing that nothing about the courses themselves, the way they were administered or the way they were graded violated then-existing policies,” the report said. “UNC admitted the courses would violate its current policies.”

Likewise, the NCAA said, while there was proof that athletic department officials were sending athletes to the class as a path of least-resistence, there was no evidence the advisers knew the classes were entirely fradulent.

“It is clear from the interviews that both athletics and academic staff believed the courses had faculty approval and that they had no authority to second-guess faculty judgement,” the report said. “The notion of academic freedom colored characterizations and perceptions of the courses. And so the classes continued.”

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