College Basketball

The NCAA's confusing position on enforcement is even confusing the NCAA

The NCAA had an opportunity to punish North Carolina for allowing its student-athletes to benefit from sham classes that required little coursework, had no oversight and featured a department secretary giving out favorable grades.

But instead, the Committee on Infractions refuted everything its own enforcement staff charged, shrugged its collective shoulders and dismissed it all as an academic matter.

In hindsight, this all seemed so predictable, given what the NCAA has become: an entity lacking any credibility in its enforcement process. Through three separate notices of allegations and written notices between the NCAA and North Carolina, there is clearly a deep disconnect between the way the enforcement staff, and ultimately the committee, viewed what happened with North Carolina.

In July 2017, the NCAA enforcement staff wrote forcefully that, “This case is not about so-called fake classes or easy courses. … Nor is this case about NCAA review of classroom curriculum.”

On Friday, committee chair Greg Sankey disputed that core argument when he said the NCAA must defer to universities and their academic policies.

Rather than look squarely at the academic policies, the enforcement staff chose to focus its charges on benefits student-athletes received that were “materially different” from the general student body — about special arrangements made for student-athletes to be placed in these classes, where they were sure to get an A or a B and stay eligible.

This is the definition of “impermissible benefits.” And though Sankey admitted that North Carolina student-athletes “more than likely” received “fraudulent credit” for taking paper classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, and that North Carolina personnel “more than likely” used the courses to “purposely obtain and maintain student-athlete eligibility,” the NCAA found it could do nothing.

That’s because these courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies were available to the general student population over an 18-year period.

How two groups under the NCAA umbrella could come to such radically different conclusions is eyebrow-raising. So is this: In the second notice of allegations North Carolina received, the impermissible benefits charge was removed. After a preliminary hearing last October, Sankey asked the enforcement staff to revisit the charges once again.

The impermissible benefits charge appeared again in the third notice last December.

Yet, none of that mattered.

If this was to ultimately be the end result, why did the NCAA spend years investigating North Carolina, drawing up charges that included lack of institutional control and impermissible benefits? Why not just go back to what it told North Carolina all the way back in 2012, when the university first brought the information about the irregular courses to them? The NCAA told North Carolina repeatedly that no NCAA rules were broken because it considered the issue an academic matter.

North Carolina hung on to that as proof that the NCAA had no jurisdiction on the matter, and even Chancellor Carol Folt believed that logic would win out. Forget about the illogical detail that an academic institution had to defend the integrity of classes that fail to even meet the standard definition of a normal college course.

Sankey defended the long process, saying, “At the end, it was important to go through the thorough evaluation, through the procedural hearings. Yet the reality is, once we had the complete record,” it could not ignore the fundamental principle that universities should control academic matters.

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Legal analyst Ryan Smith breaks down how UNC avoided major sanctions after the NCAA could not conclude that the school was in violation of academic rules.

“It’s important to understand the panel is in no way supporting what happened,” Sankey said. “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; albeit at times positions shifted and we were skeptical of positions taken, the panel couldn’t conclude violations. That’s reality.”

The committee ruled based on NCAA bylaws, but it is hard to get past the fundamental flaw in them. If the NCAA has no power on academic matters that impact students and student-athletes, then what is to stop another school from doing what just happened at North Carolina? Why even pretend the term “student-athletes” means something when the NCAA just declared it could care less about meting out punishment for academic improprieties — as long as they benefit everyone!

Sankey and Folt both declared that no school ever wants to go through what North Carolina just endured. Yes, the scandal has cost millions, sullied the university’s academic reputation and put it on probation from its accrediting agency.

Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that North Carolina got away with something because it exploited a loophole in the NCAA bylaws. Not only that, the university stepped away from calling the classes fraudulent in an effort to distance itself from the independent Cadwalader report, so it could continue to make the case that there really was nothing for the NCAA to see.

“We had some things that occurred that we haven’t been proud of,” athletic director Bubba Cunningham said. “Unfortunately, sometimes the behavior that you’re not proud of just doesn’t quite fit into a bylaw or a rule or something, and that’s what we’ve been talking about for five years. We’re not proud of the behavior, but we didn’t think it violated the bylaw. Today, the COI revealed to us that they came to that same conclusion.”

It is a conclusion that stands based on literal interpretation of NCAA bylaws that member institutions clearly wanted. Yet it feels so unseemly considering what happened on North Carolina’s campus for so many years. Even Sankey didn’t have an answer for where the NCAA draws the line the next time there is an academic case that involves improprieties that impact both the general student body and student-athletes. What if a smaller percentage of students benefit than those at North Carolina? Would that be considered a case where the NCAA has no jurisdiction, too?

North Carolina made the necessary arguments to escape punishment. Folt said this was not a day for celebration, but the Tar Heels clearly won Friday.

The NCAA did not. Its failure to do anything to North Carolina reinforces the idea that ultimately, the NCAA and its enforcement staff are rather inept.

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