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NCAA chief: We’re still talking with UNC

Association president wants to know who benefited from scheme

By Dan Kane and Clarence E. Hill Jr.
dkane@newsobserver.com

NCAA President Mark Emmert said at the association’s annual conference Thursday that NCAA interest in long-standing academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill that included heavy involvement of athletes hinges on whether the scheme particularly benefited them.

Emmert said that he is troubled that freshmen athletes were enrolled in African studies classes that had been billed as being for experienced students, did not meet and required only a paper. One football player was enrolled in an upper-level class, and received a B-plus, before he had started his first full semester as a freshman in need of remedial writing.

“Sure it does,” Emmert said when asked if that raised a red flag. “And we will continue to talk more with North Carolina.”

Last month, a university-commissioned report found more than 200 lecture-style classes over a 14-year period within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies that never met. Those enrolled were told to write a term paper that likely wasn’t read, but received a good grade. There were hundreds of independent studies that also showed little or no oversight, and 560 suspected unauthorized grade changes.

But that report, in line with UNC officials’ earlier claims, found the scandal is not about athletics because non-athletes enrolled in the bogus classes received the same treatment. The report also laid the blame for the scandal on Julius Nyang’oro, the longtime department chairman forced into retirement in July, and Deborah Crowder, his longtime department manager who retired in September 2009.

Records and interviews show that the academic support program for athletes knew the classes did not meet, were not challenging and steered academically challenged athletes into them. This included several freshmen, who normally would never be enrolled in such classes.

Academic scandals involving athletes do not necessarily draw NCAA investigations, especially if there was no specific intent to aid athletes. The athletic vs. academic question led the NCAA away from an independent study controversy at the University of Michigan, and the association only found minor violations after a similar case at Auburn University. In both cases, athletes benefited substantially.

That’s the question at UNC, Emmert said in Grapevine, Texas. “If there is an academic issue inside an institution that is, is not particularly related to athletics ... in other words, it’s an issue where a course isn’t being handled appropriately, but let’s say it’s open to all student athletes and not singling out student athletes, and it has nothing to do with an athletic program and a department, then that’s the institution’s issue rather than an NCAA issue.”

Emmert said that so far, this appears to be an academic matter, but he is awaiting more information from ongoing investigations.

‘A ridiculous argument’

John Infante, who helped oversee NCAA compliance at Colorado State and Loyola Marymount and has written a blog on compliance issues, said the NCAA has a tough call on such cases because its member universities did not want to give it more authority over how classes should be taught.

“As long as (athletic or academic support staff for athletes) are not going in there and working with the professor as to how this class is taught, I don’t think there’s anything in the NCAA rules that includes a violation on that.”

Unlike Michigan and Auburn, UNC officials have confirmed the academic fraud. They said students who took the no-show classes were cheated out of an education.

Critics say the NCAA is being shortsighted in ruling out academic fraud investigations because non-athletes were involved. They say it sends the message that those who want to cheat on academics to help athletes stay eligible to play sports merely need to enroll nonathletes as well.

“If I were to be an athletic academic counselor trying to keep an impact player eligible I would make sure that some equipment manager or some nonathlete were in a course. That’s a ridiculous argument,” said Gerald Gurney, a University of Oklahoma professor who is past president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics, and a former senior associate athletic director for academics.

He said the high enrollments of athletes in many of the classes, along with freshmen enrolled in classes described as for upperclassmen, should make the scandal the NCAA’s business. He said athletic and academic support officials had an obligation under NCAA rules to report academic fraud and keep athletes from enrolling in suspect classes.

New doubts about report

In recent months, athletics officials have asserted that they did report concerns about African studies classes to a faculty athletics committee, but several faculty on that committee say that didn’t happen, or they don’t recollect it. The minutes of those meetings do not show a warning or concern, but former Gov. Jim Martin’s report last month took the side of athletics officials.

That development has sparked a new controversy, with some faculty concerned that the university has made them scapegoats to prevent the NCAA from investigating. Lloyd Kramer, the history department chairman who attended the meetings in question, has asked the university’s Faculty Council to take up a resolution that disputes Martin’s finding.

At a Faculty Council meeting last week, chairwoman Jan Boxill said the faculty on the athletics committee may have forgotten what was said at the meetings. But she later said Martin should have interviewed them, and she, too, doubted that the minutes of those meetings backed up Martin’s finding.

“The only fact that we have is that something is referred to in the minutes,” she said in an email message. “It is not clear to me what was actually brought up – independent studies or something else. Since there is just the line in the minutes, it would seem to me that no red flags were raised by anyone.”

Clarence E. Hill Jr. is a staff writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Kane: 919-829-4861
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