In June 2011, the National Collegiate Athletic Association charged the football program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with violating multiple rules. An investigation had revealed that players like former defensive tackle Marvin Austin and former wide receiver Greg Little had received “improper benefits” like jewelry and money for travel. Other infractions involved a tutor giving too much help on players’ class papers and a former assistant coach accepting money from an agent in exchange for access to athletes. After UNC doled out self-imposed penalties, including vacating wins for the 2008 and 2009 season and a $50,000 fine, in March 2012 the NCAA, which organizes and enforces the rules for most collegiate athletic programs in the U.S., added that UNC would be forbidden to play in a postseason bowl this year. Ultimately, UNC, home of the Tar Heels, was put on probation and lost scholarships. Head coach Butch Davis was fired, despite no evidence that he was involved in the violations.
Just two months later, in August, the scandal took a turn for the bizarre. It was discovered that UNC had posted online what appeared to be the academic record of former Tar Heels defensive end Julius Peppers. The document showed high marks in many Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) classes and poor ones in other classes. It was then discovered that certain AFAM seminars, including independent studies, gave out little work and had unauthorized grade changes. According to reports, more than 50 percent of those attending the classes were athletes, suggesting that the easy grades helped them stay academically eligible to play. The university’s board of governors formed a panel to review the investigation, which hasn’t yet finished its inquiry. But the NCAA announced no further punishment than what it had meted out for the earlier violations. Josephine Potuto, a former chair of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, speculated that because the AFAM classes in question were offered to everyone, not just to student-athletes in order to give them an edge, no NCAA violation was committed.
“I understand the decision on technical/legal grounds. I can even respect the NCAA's stated desire not to meddle in the internal curricular affairs of a university,” Jay Smith, professor and associate chair of UNC’s history department, said after the announcement. “But surely this case should make them want to go back to their rule book. They might add an appendix called ‘What will happen if you offer completely unsupervised athletes-only courses in which credit hours are awarded and GPAs boosted in return for no meaningful work.’ Because Carolina did exactly that.”
But what does this mean for the NCAA’s ability to uphold the integrity of both scholarship and sports and to “protect student-athletes,” as it was founded in 1906 to do? Few universities, whose athletic programs generate millions of dollars, seem afraid of running afoul of an organization that seems more concerned with the money involved than in fair play. Now, as the NCAA seeks to revamp its enforcement process and clarify its role, the real question is: Will schools fall in line?
Earlier this year, the NCAA took the opposite tack from its lack of action in the AFAM case when it levied sanctions against Pennsylvania State University for the sex-abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Under intense public and media pressure, the organization examined the report of former FBI director Louis Freeh, which found that Joe Paterno, head coach of the Nittany Lions, the Penn State football team, and university administrators chose not to act when they heard allegations of child abuse committed by Sandusky. Instead of going through the standard lengthy review process, the NCAA leaned on the Freeh report, with the board of directors granting NCAA President Mark Emmert the power to punish Penn State with a $60 million fine, reduced scholarships, and a postseason ban for four years. In addition, the Nittany Lions’ wins from 1998 to 2011 were vacated, effectively erasing more than a decade of Paterno’s legacy.
“These events should serve as a call to every single school and athletics department to take an honest look at its campus environment and eradicate the 'sports are king' mindset that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators,” Emmert said in a statement.
The NCAA is all about sending messages. The problem is that in the case of Penn State, which involved neither current players nor a sports-related offense, the punishment mostly affected current and future athletes who had nothing to do with covering up Sandusky’s crimes. In North Carolina, those who helped athletes stay eligible were not punished at all. In both cases, though, the association punished institutions that had demonstrated a serious lack of control over their athletic programs. It’s time, the NCAA seems to be saying, for the universities themselves to take responsibility. But if the NCAA is indeed going to keep up the image of protecting players who are both students and athletes, it needs a consistent message of what it won’t tolerate, and it needs universities to comply with it.
“I’m critical of the universities because they hide behind the NCAA to abdicate their own responsibility,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, author of The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA, “which is to stand up and say, ‘We’re going to make higher education and athletics compatible by upholding our own standards, and we’re going to do it in a public way, and we’re going to take responsibility for it.’”
Last month, in a move unrelated to the judgments on UNC and Penn State, the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors approved a set of recommendations regarding the way it handles enforcement. Among the proposed changes, set for an October confirmation vote, are an increase in the number of members on the Committee on Infractions and expansion of violation categories and levels. But these won’t help shift responsibility for compliance to the universities. What will help is the board calling for more accountability when it comes to penalizing head coaches.
“A part of what this is all about is saying to the adults in the room, ‘Look, you're supposed to be in charge. That's your job. That's your business. You're compensated, sometimes very well, for it. You need to know what's going on,’” Emmert told CBSsports.com’s Tony Barnhart last month.
The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions is also in the process of streamlining its rules, which should clarify its authority. The hope is that the rules will be clearer and much simpler for programs to follow. “They need to look at all these rules and be sure the ones they’re going to enforce with heavy sanctions are absolutely essential to either having an even playing field or relating to fundamental NCAA core values,” Potuto says. “And everything else we shouldn’t try to regulate.”
The enforcement changes and proposed new rules could improve accountability on the part of the schools and help the NCAA adapt to shifts in athletic culture. While even Potuto has called the initiative to fix the rules “too modest an effort” when it comes to preventing coaches, student-athletes, and others from seeking ways around the regulations, creating clearer guidelines and putting further responsibility on coaches for the behavior of their programs is a small step toward more consistent enforcement. If universities want to demonstrate that they’re not merely revenue generators or feeder farms for professional sports, they’re going to have to at least attempt to take responsibility for their integrity. Otherwise, something more drastic will have to be done to change collegiate athletic culture