Sports

NCAA Proves Once Again It Doesn't Care About Classes

UNC skirts punishment over its academic scandal, creating a playbook for future rule-breakers.

Plenty to celebrate in Chapel Hill again tonight.

Photographer: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

So the University of North Carolina is off the hook. After two decades of steering football and basketball players into fake classes in its African and Afro-American Studies Department so that they could remain eligible to play -- without question, the worst academic scandal in the history of college sports -- the National Collegiate Athletic Association concluded Friday morning that it would take no action against the university or its sports teams. The scandal, it said, was beyond its jurisdiction.

The NCAA’s rationale, according to Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, who led the panel that made the decision, was that the classes weren’t “solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes,” but were also offered to nonathletes. In addition, Sankey said, “the NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership.”

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The NCAA is wrong in saying the fake classes weren’t begun to help athletes -- Deborah Crowder, the department administrator who set up the program, testified that that indeed was the original purpose of the fake classes. But in a narrow sense, the NCAA is correct in saying it can’t overrule the judgment of the universities that make up its membership. 1  Nonetheless, here’s what I think will be some of the consequences:

(1) The NCAA’s credibility, which has been dropping for at least the last five years, is going to take a huge hit -- and it may never completely recover. Its mission statement says in part:

Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority. In the collegiate model of sports, the young men and women competing on the field or court are students first, athletes second.

How can anyone possibly take that mission statement seriously anymore? What’s worse is that the NCAA has the gall to describe these fake classes as a “benefit” to the athletes. It was anything but. Crowder told investigators that she felt badly for those athletes who were clearly unqualified to do college-level work, and wanted to help them out. But she was actually depriving them of the one and only thing the university promised them in return for their labors on the playing fields: an education. Few scandals in the history of college sports have shined as bright a light on its moral bankruptcy as this one.

(2) Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky coach of an earlier age, used to teach a class that his players all took. They all got A’s of course, something Rupp used to joke about. (As I say, it was a different age.) In more recent times, far too many players have “majored in eligibility,” with their academic advisers placing them in classes that have no particular rhyme or reason, other than to maintain the athlete’s eligibility. With the NCAA unable to intervene in the academics of athletes, schools large and small no longer have to even pretend that education matters. Athletic departments can set up all the fake classes they want -- and don’t think they won’t.

(3) Big important schools now know they can roll the NCAA. Jerry Tarkanian, who coached the University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball team -- and who was embroiled in litigation with the NCAA for some two decades – once said memorably : “The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it’s going to give Cleveland State two more years’ probation.” That’s not completely true, but it’s close: The big boys have always gotten a better shake from the NCAA than smaller schools that are less important to College Sports Inc.

But UNC introduced a new wrinkle. Instead of cooperating, which is what schools have historically done -- and which the NCAA expects of them -- UNC at a certain point decided to fight back. During the years this fight went on, the NCAA delivered several documents describing the fake class scandal as a serious violation of its rules. But as the university pushed back, arguing that the fake classes were none of its business, the NCAA withdrew those charges. Without question, had UNC cooperated, it would have been punished. I can guarantee you other big schools took notice. The days when schools with major athletic programs routinely take pre-emptive action to punish themselves to curry favor with the NCAA are probably over.

(4) Here’s the big one. The NCAA’s decision to punt on the UNC scandal is likely to have serious antitrust implications. Over the years, the NCAA has successfully warded off legal antitrust attacks by stressing the alleged connection between amateurism and education. Most recently, in its 2015 O’Bannon decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a federal court decision that the NCAA’s amateurism rules violated the federal antitrust laws. But it then went on to say that any cash compensation received by the players had to be “tethered” to an educational mission. In other words, it bought the NCAA’s rationale.

Post O’Bannon, another antitrust case against the NCAA is slowly making its way through the courts. The Jenkins case -- named for former Clemson football player Martin Jenkins, who is the lead plaintiff -- is a full-frontal assault on the NCAA’s compensation limits. The lawyer bringing the case, Jeffrey Kessler, has built his career advocating for professional athletes; he helped bring about free agency in professional football. He contends that even with the 9th Circuit’s decision, he has a good chance of winning.

He certainly has a better chance after Friday. The NCAA’s abdication simply undercuts its primary defense: that the integration of academics and athletics are pro-competitive.

Anybody paying close attention has long known that’s not true. Now even federal judges are likely to see it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The NCAA does, however, regularly involve itself in high school curricula, often ruling players ineligible based on descriptions of their classes. Surely, this is another place it doesn’t belong.

To contact the author of this story:
Joe Nocera at jnocera3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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