UNC-Chapel Hill escaped NCAA sanctions, in what was one of the longest-running academic scandals in college sports history, in large part by refusing to identify as fraudulent 18 years of classes that had no instruction and were graded by a secretary.
The NCAA Committee on Infraction's 24-page decision on Friday set off jubilation among UNC fans on a day that concludes with the men's basketball team raising its 2017 NCAA championship banner. But some outside of the university said the decision showed the NCAA is failing in its stated mission of supporting the educational opportunities for athletes.
Stuart Brown, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in NCAA matters, said the committee followed its rules in making its decision. But he said the public is right to be concerned about the NCAA's inability to act.
“If the NCAA can't adjudicate this kind of issue, what is its real purpose?” he said. “Carolina institutionally used these sham courses for years and years to assist and maintain the eligibility of student athletes who then competed on behalf of the university and [UNC] gained advantage over schools where this course work, so to speak, was not available.”
Gerald Gurney, a University of Oklahoma professor and past president of The Drake Group, which promotes academic integrity in sports, said in effect, “the NCAA has sanctioned fraud and I think this is a vivid demonstration of that.”
The infractions report said that UNC officials had earlier acknowledged the classes constituted academic fraud. They did so in response to the most comprehensive investigation into the classes, by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, and when the commission that accredits the university followed up with a review that ultimately put UNC on academic probation for a year.
But UNC's lawyers told the NCAA that the admission in a letter to the accrediting commission was a “typo,” and UNC largely disavowed Wainstein's conclusions. He found that more than 3,100 students had taken at least one of the bogus classes, with athletes making up nearly half of the enrollments.
Nearly all of the classes were created and graded by Deborah Crowder, a former administrative assistant in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. After she retired, her boss, former department chairman Julius Nyang'oro, created several more at the urging of academic counselors to the football team.
“The panel is troubled by the university’s shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus and the credibility of the Cadwalader report [commonly known as the Wainstein Report], which it distanced itself from after initially supporting the findings,” the infractions committee report said.
“However, NCAA policy is clear. 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.”
Greg Sankey, who was chairman of the infractions committee at the time of UNC’s hearing in August, said today: “The panel is in no way supporting what happened.”
“What happened was troubling, and I think that's been acknowledged by many different parties. But the panel applied the membership’s bylaws to the facts,” said Sankey, who is commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.
Sankey said the decision would be forwarded to the Southern Association Commission on Schools and Colleges Commission on Colleges. UNC Chancellor Carol Folt called that standard operating procedure for the NCAA, and the university had already notified the accrediting commission.
“We believe this is the correct —and fair — outcome,” Folt said in a news conference after the decision. She noted the university has enacted roughly 70 reforms in the wake of what she called the “academic irregularities.”
UNC General Counsel Mark Merritt defended the legitimacy of the classes, in response to a reporter’s question. He said they were supervised by a professor who approved the assignments. He said no passing grade was given to a student who didn't turn in a paper.
Records in the case aren't so clear cut. In 2010, when UNC officials investigated a tutor's improper help in a Swahili class, the professor whose name was on the grade rolls said he did not teach it. He told UNC officials when he brought it to the attention of Nyang'oro, the department head exclaimed “that stupid woman!”
Wainstein's investigation found dozens of papers that were heavily plagiarized. UNC's lawyers contended that he didn't prove those papers were actually submitted.
Wainstein concluded the classes began in 1993 and ran through the summer of 2011. That's when The News & Observer obtained the transcript of a UNC football player who had been kicked off the team in an NCAA investigation into improper benefits from agents and improper academic help from a tutor. The transcript showed the football player was placed in an upper level African studies course the summer before he began his freshman year and received a B plus.
The N&O report triggered a review by UNC officials that led to Nyang'oro's resignation as department chairman. He retired after an initial internal probe found dozens of classes that lacked instruction and only required a paper. The probe also pointed to Crowder.
But UNC officials then contended the classes did not constitute an athletics scandal because nonathletes had also been enrolled. The N&O's reporting showed high percentages of athletes enrolled, and knowledge within the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes that the classes listed as lecture style didn't meet and provided a high grade for the paper.
It wasn't until 2014, as Wainstein investigated, that the NCAA re-entered the picture. That led to three successive notices of allegations in the case that did not charge academic misconduct, but eventually settled on accusing UNC of providing impermissible extra benefits to athletes and a lack of institutional control.
The infractions committee said it couldn't rule against UNC on those charges as well. It said Crowder had successfully argued during the hearing that the classes she created and graded were for all students.
Crowder is a big fan of UNC athletics. The athletic department provided at no cost a spacious, climate-controlled luxury box at Kenan Stadium for her retirement party in 2009.
Jan Boxill, the former faculty leader who had also been an academic counselor to women's basketball players, was also spared sanctions from the committee. The NCAA's enforcement staff had accused her of providing improper help to the athletes, based on emails and other records UNC had provided. The university had forced Boxill to retire after the Wainstein report.
The committee's only sanctions were for Nyang'oro and Crowder for failing to cooperate with the NCAA's investigation. Nyang'oro never responded to requests to be interviewed, while Crowder didn't come forward until earlier this year.
Nyang'oro received a show-cause order that bars him from working in a position involving college athletics. Crowder was not barred from involvement, but a record of her lack of cooperation would remain in the NCAA's files for anyone inquiring.
Crowder’s attorney, Elliot Abrams, said in a statement the infractions committee’s ruling affirmed that Crowder was a “lifetime public servant who treated all students equal and worked tirelessly to provide appropriate academic opportunities to all students.”
He also called the ruling “an important victory for academic freedom and innovative teaching methods.”
The infraction committee's decision comes at a critical time for the NCAA and for college sports. In late September, federal prosecutors in New York announced felony charges from an investigation into payoffs involving assistant basketball coaches at four Division 1 power conference schools and an Adidas shoe company executive. That case has already cost Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino his job after court documents linked his program to using shoe money to make payoffs to land recruits.
The continuing probe caused NCAA President Mark Emmert to form a special “Commission on College Basketball” to be led by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“The recent news of a federal investigation into fraud in college basketball made it very clear the NCAA needs to make substantive changes to the way we operate, and do so quickly,” Emmert said in a news release. “Individuals who break the trust on which college sports is based have no place here.”
The UNC case drew a wide divergence of opinion. University of Maryland President Wallace Loh said earlier this year in a faculty meeting that he thought UNC deserved the “death penalty,” a shutting down of major athletic programs. Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst, former Duke player and a lawyer, said the NCAA had no jurisdiction.
Last February, in an interview with CBS Sports, UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham said: “Is this academic fraud? Yes, it is by a normal person’s standard. But by the NCAA definition (it is not) ... I’m telling you what happened was bad, but it’s not against the rules.”
The revenue sports of football and men's basketball have created a dynamic where schools and coaches reap millions of dollars off of the work of athletes who, in turn, are supposed to be given the opportunity to earn a free college education. While the federal probe focuses on one area of breakdown —athletes being tempted with payoffs — the UNC case spoke to another, allegations that athletes had been deprived of legitimate educations so they could stay eligible to play.
That this happened with classes from the Department of African and Afro-American Studies was especially glaring. The majority of athletes who played football and men's basketball at UNC during the years of bogus classes are black.
The biggest beneficiaries of the bogus classes were football and men's basketball, Wainstein found.
"We just don't care if our black athletes get an education at all," said Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist for UNC's academic support program for athletes who blew the whistle on the classes. "We're just exploiting them. This just makes it crystal clear.”