Colleges

North Carolina dodges penalties in academic fraud ruling

FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2017, file photo, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, head of the NCAA infraction panel handling North Carolina's ongoing academic case, arrives at an NCAA hearing in Nashville, Tenn. Sankey says it's "more likely than not" that UNC athletes received fraudulent credit, but the organization's bylaws leave it to the schools themselves to determine academic fraud. He added that the panel could not use "those strong possibilities" to determine whether violations occurred." (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski, File)
Mark Zaleski/AP
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who headed the NCAA infraction panel handling North Carolina's ongoing academic case, said it's "more likely than not" that UNC athletes received fraudulent credit.

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The NCAA did not dispute that the University of North Carolina was guilty of running one of the worst academic fraud schemes in college sports history, involving fake classes that enabled dozens of athletes to gain and maintain their eligibility.

But there will be no penalties, the organization said, because no rules were broken.

In a ruling that caused head-scratching everywhere except Chapel Hill, the NCAA announced Friday that it could not punish the university or its athletics program because the “paper” classes were not available exclusively to athletes. Other students at North Carolina had access to the fraudulent classes, too.

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Noting that distinction, the panel that investigated the case “could not conclude that the University of North Carolina violated NCAA academic rules,” the NCAA said in a statement.

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The NCAA’s determination was a major victory for North Carolina after years of wrangling and uncertainty. The athletic department — one of the most high-profile and lucrative ones in the country, and a source of deep pride in the state — could have faced severe penalties, including the loss of championships in men’s basketball, its signature sport.

The NCAA’s committee on infractions concluded it lacked the power to punish the university under the rules of the NCAA, an association that expects members to govern themselves and establishes a wide berth when it comes to determining what qualifies as academic progress.

“NCAA policy is clear,” said Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, who led the panel. “The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership.”

Carol L. Folt, the university’s chancellor, welcomed the ruling, pointing to the reforms it instituted internally. “I believe we have done everything possible to correct and move beyond the past academic irregularities and have established very robust processes to prevent them from recurring,” she said.

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According to a university-commissioned investigation, North Carolina had for nearly two decades offered a “shadow curriculum” of fake classes into which athletes were steered. It appeared to be a stark subversion of the NCAA’s central tenet that college athletics are a mere component of education.

The scheme involved nearly 200 laxly administered and graded classes — frequently requiring no attendance and just one paper — over nearly two decades in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. Their students were disproportionately athletes, especially in the lucrative, high-profile sports of football and men’s basketball. They were mostly administered by a staff member named Deborah Crowder. In many cases, athletes were steered to the classes by athletics academic advisers.

The scandal was so serious that the university’s accreditation body briefly placed the university on probation.

In its notice of allegations, which is the NCAA equivalent of a lawsuit or an indictment, the NCAA’s enforcement staff pointed to the high enrollment of athletes in the classes — nearly half, according to the university-commissioned investigation led by Kenneth L. Wainstein — and e-mails in which advisers requested spots for athletes. It charged North Carolina with a “lack of institutional control” resulting in violations of bylaws governing extra benefits to athletes and ethical conduct.

UNC had contended that the case was fundamentally academic in nature, and that athletics staffers were at most tangential to it. The university cited instances in which similar misconduct was alleged at Auburn University in Alabama and Michigan, and the NCAA did not act.

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“The fact that the courses did not meet our expectations,” Mark Merritt, the university’s general counsel, said in a call with reporters, “doesn’t make them fraudulent.”

In a tone that seemed begrudging at times, the panel accepted that reasoning.

“While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’ offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes,” Sankey said.