The topic on a Louisville sports talk radio roundtable I was listening to last week was the University of North Carolina academic fraud scandal.
Being debated was whether the case, which involved a disproportionate number of UNC athletes taking no-show classes in the university’s African and Afro-American Studies department over an 18-year period, should be regarded as an athletics scandal.
Only one of the four full-time sports media personalities on the Louisville roundtable was willing to call it primarily an athletics impropriety.
Which, to me, was surprising.
If you’ve read the 2014 investigatory report on the scandal produced at the behest of UNC by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein, it seems hard to reasonably claim that athletics was not the main impetus.
Wainstein reported that, from 1993 through 2011, more than 3,100 UNC students took classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department that did not require attendance.
The courses featured no oversight from a professor and asked only that students write a single term paper. Almost all the students who turned in the papers received either A’s or B’s regardless of the quality of their work.
Of those enrolled in the sham classes, Wainstein said 48 percent — almost 1,500 — were North Carolina athletes. Two sports — football and men’s basketball — were responsible for 24.5 percent of enrollments in the suspect courses.
According to the Wainstein report, the sham courses were initiated because Deborah Crowder, an administrative aide in the North Carolina African and Afro-American Studies program, felt a strong affinity for students “with academic or other challenges in their lives.”
In part, that was based on her feelings about her own experience as a UNC undergrad in the 1970s.
“(Crowder) believed it was her duty to lend a helping hand to struggling students, and in particular to that subset of student-athletes who came to campus without adequate academic preparation for Chapel Hill’s demanding curriculum,” the report said.
Eventually, that led Crowder “to implement a plan to offer classes that awarded high grades with little regard for the quality of a student’s work,” the report said. “These paper classes were taken by students of all types, but were especially popular among student-athletes.”
There is no evidence that anyone in the North Carolina athletics department in 1993 initiated sham classes for athletes.
As the years passed, however, counselors in UNC’s Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes “were well aware that these courses existed, that they required relatively little work and that they generally resulted in high grades,” the Wainstein report says. “For those reasons, some counselors routinely steered their student-athletes into these classes.”
When Crowder was set to retire in 2009, counselors from the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes produced a PowerPoint presentation for the UNC football coaching staff on the ramifications of her departure:
“We put (athletes) in classes that met degree requirements in which: They didn’t go to class; They didn’t take notes or have to stay awake; They didn’t have to meet with professors; They didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material. … THESE NO LONGER EXIST.”
The UNC case has been under NCAA review for six years now. A resolution may be delayed again. Crowder, who had refused to cooperate with NCAA investigators, now says she’s willing to be interviewed. (She also says the classes in question were on the up-and-up.)
North Carolina’s current line of defense is to claim the letter of NCAA law doesn’t apply to what went on in Chapel Hill.
“Is this academic fraud? Yes, it is by a normal person’s standards,” UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham told Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports in February. “But by the NCAA definition (it is not). … I’m telling you what happened was bad, but it’s not against the rules.”
Whether North Carolina ultimately “out-brazens” the NCAA or not, what I’m telling you is the evidence shows UNC’s sham classes were systematically used as a means to boost academically struggling athletes.
Which is why, in the interest of ethical clarity, people should stop saying it was not primarily an athletics scandal.