CRAWFORD | North Carolina, the NCAA, and the breakdown of the Ho - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | North Carolina, the NCAA, and the breakdown of the Honor System

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AP photo. AP photo.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Honor System only really works if its participants act with honor. This is the NCAA’s problem.

The favorite target of Twitter ire in the wake of a non-decision on admitted academic wrongdoing by North Carolina on Friday, the NCAA, we must all continually remind ourselves, is nothing more than a collection of colleges and universities, writing their own rules, and agreeing to abide by them.

Except when they don’t.

There’s a reason the NCAA doesn’t have more investigative power. There’s a reason it took FBI investigators to crack the long-rumored corruption involving shoe companies and college basketball. Federal investigators could get warrants for phone records and to set up wiretaps. The NCAA has to ask its members to be honest and police themselves.

Fat chance.

In the case of North Carolina, the NCAA’s academic bylaws basically leave the task of determining what is a legitimate academic enterprise up to the organization’s various members. For the NCAA to conclude academic fraud geared toward providing a competitive advantage in athletics, a school has to conclude that fraud happened on its campus.

At North Carolina, the story is well known. In the department of Afro-American studies, students had classes that never met, that required only a single paper be turned in at the end. Often those papers were the work of others, or were recycled from previous students. The grades were a gift. There was no real learning. There was no instruction. The papers were graded not by a professor, but by a secretary.

UNC commissioned a study, led by a former federal prosecutor, Kenneth Wainstein, which found that more than 3,000 students had taken part in at least one bogus class over an 18-year period, nearly half of them athletes. In response to that report, UNC agreed that academic fraud had taken place, and the university was placed on probation by its accrediting agency.

But when faced with the possibility of sanctions from the NCAA, including the possible loss of a national championship in basketball, the school changed its story. It said its admission of fraud had been a “typo,” and distanced itself from the investigative report it had commissioned.

In the end, if North Carolina was going to be so bold as to claim no fraud occurred in a department where one classes’ listed professor said he never even taught the course, the NCAA was paralyzed.

NCAA bylaws, plain and simple, don’t comprehend a situation in which an institution of higher learning would debase itself to pretend that fake courses for athletic gain were legitimate against overwhelming and clear evidence to the contrary.

That’s what North Carolina has done. A school that proudly proclaims, “The Carolina Way” has now shown, quite clearly, what that way is: Win at all costs.

That phrase is used a lot around these parts. I hear it hurled at the University of Louisville, and in looking at some of the actions (and recently, alleged actions) around a couple of its athletic programs, it’s hard to mount much of an argument against it.

Except for this – when presented with wrongdoing within its men’s basketball program, the university acted swiftly, worked in concert with the NCAA, suspended itself from the NCAA Tournament for one season, acknowledged that violations had occurred, and was sanctioned accordingly, too harshly, in the view of the school, but still sanctioned nonetheless.

I heard a lot of howling when U of L exercised its right to defend itself during the process – but U of L did so within the process, not claiming itself to be above the process. The university went to great expense to investigate what it had done wrong, and came to an agreement with NCAA enforcement officials, in large part, on what happened.

That’s how the NCAA’s enforcement system is supposed to work.

That’s the opposite of what happened with North Carolina, which spent $18 million largely in defending itself against prosecution of any kind by the NCAA, and which refused to agree to any NCAA jurisdiction even in the face of clear academic misconduct.

UNC knows academic fraud happened on its campus. By refusing to accept the consequences of that, it makes a clear statement that athletic success trumps academic endeavor in Chapel Hill.

Last February, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham told CBS News: “Is this academic fraud? Yes, it is by a normal person’s standard. But by the NCAA definition (it’s not) ... I’m telling you what happened was bad, but it’s not against the rules.”

The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions report states: “The panel is troubled by the university’s shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus . . . 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.”

An important point. The NCAA, which, in the end, is governed by university presidents and whose bylaws are agreed to and voted on by its membership (the schools), must be the organizing body for all institutions. That means, academically speaking, Harvard and Yale operate under the same umbrella as Kentucky and Louisville. Not to demean our state schools, but we all know that the academic rigor of those institutions is not comparable.

North Carolina, meanwhile, was, until this controversy came to light, seen as one of the more prestigious public universities in the U.S. And the difficulty is that, who is to say that an athlete at UNC, even with a few bogus courses, didn’t receive more legitimate academic instruction and grounding than an athlete at a school with a lesser reputation?

The NCAA, put simply, cannot be about the business of setting curriculum for its thousands of schools. Nor can it be about policing what is too difficult or too easy in terms of course requirements. It has to trust the schools to put forth a good-faith effort.

North Carolina’s reaction to admitted academic wrongdoing shows that the system breaks down when a university is not dealing in good faith.

Interestingly, the NCAA has no problem policing the academics of players before they reach college. It has a complicated code of academic requirement for initial eligibility.

But once in college, apparently, anything goes.

And now, because of its inability to address a clear and straightforward case of academic fraud over an 18-year period, the NCAA has been exposed as ineffectual, and likely in jeopardy of giving way to a new or reorganized sanctioning body which, of course, promises to be even less efficient and more corrupt. Because it’s the schools who write the rules.

“Sometimes,” Cunningham said, “the behavior that you’re not proud of just doesn’t quite fit into a bylaw or a rule or something.”

And sometimes, it’s not the rules that come up short, it’s the universities that are asked to abide by them.

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