In a 25-minute speech Wednesday, ACC Commissioner John Swofford gave a large audience attending the Raleigh Sports Club’s weekly luncheon an upbeat message about the league’s fortunes.
He spoke of the numerous championships ACC schools have won in football, men’s basketball and baseball among other sports in the last two years, the member schools’ high academic standards and the steps the NCAA and ACC are taking to help student athletes financially without compromising their amateur status.
“We’re in great shape,” he said. “I think if you are an ACC supporter of any of our schools, or the league, you can expect great things going forward, and I would expect nothing less.”
It wasn’t until the attendees started asking questions that Swofford had to talk about what one of them described as “the elephant in the room” – the academic scandal involving athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The NCAA has accused UNC of five major allegations that include impermissible benefits and a lack of institutional control, but the case has yet to be heard by the NCAA’s infractions committee. The scandal involves 18 years of fake classes mostly created by a departmental manager who was not a professor and who handed out high grades if a paper was completed. Athletes made up roughly half of the 3,100 students enrolled in the classes.
Swofford took three scandal related questions from the attendees. One wanted to know what Swofford has said or done or wanted to say or do “that would have helped the resolution of the issues in a somewhat more responsible manner.”
His response was more along the lines of a concern about how long it takes the NCAA to complete infractions cases.
“The sheer length of these kinds of investigations become a severe sanction in themselves,” he said, adding that leaders of the five major conferences are talking about ways to revamp the process.
He was asked about the “one and done” path star college basketball players choose because they can’t be drafted out of high school. He said he favored the baseball model that allows high school students to sign with teams and to commit to three years if they choose to go to college.
But he admitted the infrastructure to move to that model isn’t in place, in part because the NBA and its players’ union have not signed on. That’s an issue with football, as well, because the NFL has no farm system.
The last question spoke to the low academic eligibility standards set by the NCAA. Why didn’t the ACC lead the way by setting higher standards?
“You are going to get into more North Carolina messes if you don’t,” the questioner said.
Swofford the ACC did have an 800 SAT score minimum, but had to drop it under the threat of a lawsuit. He said ACC members likely wouldn’t set a higher standard to avoid being at a “competitive disadvantage” with the other major conferences.
Swofford was UNC’s athletic director when the departmental manager, Deborah Crowder, began offering the classes in 1993, an investigation found, after academic support staff for athletes complained about independent studies that required meetings and progress reports on term papers. But he has said he knew nothing about the fake classes, which grew dramatically after he left to run the ACC in 1997.
In an interview after his appearance, Swofford could not say whether the facts of the UNC case constituted academic misconduct. The NCAA did not allege academic misconduct, and has said in a related court case that member schools make the call whether courses are legitimate. Critics say that’s a loophole that could give schools a way to cheat without drawing NCAA action.
The NCAA is developing a proposal for member schools that would give it more say in determining academic misconduct. Swofford said he was aware of it but did not know the details.
As UNC’s athletic director, Swofford had moved the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes out from under the athletic department and over to the College of Arts and Sciences in the late 1980s. He said no specific incident prompted him to make the move; he just saw it as a better fit.
Swofford allowed the men’s basketball team to keep its academic support largely separate from the program, and it stayed that way until 2003, when Coach Roy Williams took over and brought in his academic support leader, Wayne Walden, from Kansas. Prior to that, Burgess McSwain, ran the men’s basketball tutoring. She was a close friend of Crowder’s, and records show men’s basketball players enrolled in the bogus classes early in the scandal.
“The idea was to transition it gradually,” Swofford said. He said he thought it was an effective program.
Swofford said he knew McSwain, who died in 2004, and saw nothing she had done in his time at UNC that would have given him pause.