Two Lessons From the UNC Case

Today the NCAA announced that North Carolina had been cleared of all wrongdoing in the scandal involving no-show classes for football and men’s basketball players. Predictably, that caused an uproar. Except none of those things happened today. The NCAA announced nothing; North Carolina issued a statement. And the statement only refers to

Two Lessons From the UNC Case

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the NCAA’s opinion on one of four separate internal investigations.

So the case continues and all we learned today is North Carolina is 25% closer to being in the clear and the NCAA has been involved with the case for over a year now. But we can already learn two important lessons from UNC’s troubles.

1. Public Relations are a Big Part of Major Violation Cases

Repeat after me: If a school has good news after being accused of a major NCAA violation, you will hear about it. Any nugget that puts the case in a better light, whether it be a full acquittal or even the news, like in UNC’s case that the NCAA has not found anything to date, will get out.

Silence, while often pointed to as evidence that the NCAA is ignoring potential violations, is what should scare fans. The NCAA does not talk about investigations and instructs the school not to. Information about a case comes out through leaks or announcements from the school and in the results of open records requests from reporters. That puts a school (especially a private school) in almost sole control of the public perception of the case.

Done well, that means a school keeps quiet when things are not going well and shouts loud and clear to anyone who will listen when it catches a break. Done poorly, a lot of people at the school loudly proclaim their innocence only to see the NCAA come down hard later.

How a school works the public relations side of a case is not just a reflection of the status of the investigation, but can have an impact on the end result. Much like a criminal defendant showing remorse, it is becoming increasingly clear that a school needs to show they “get it” when being investigated. And one sign of taking an investigation seriously is not claiming your innocence until you have something to base that claim on. But given how damaging silence is to the perception of a school and its recruiting, expect that claim to come as soon as the school has even the slightest reason to make it.

2. The UNC scandal is the NCAA’s Gordian Knot

Despite being a cornerstone of the NCAA rules, the term “academic fraud” is mentioned only once in the entire Division I Manual, as a basis for postseason bans. Such an important and loaded term is not defined by the NCAA in the Manual. There is no academic fraud bylaw that spells out the behaviors that constitute academic fraud.

As a result, both the Committee on Infractions and commentators on the NCAA take the same approach to academic fraud as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart took to pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Things which fall under academic dishonesty are clearly also academic fraud. That includes cheating, plagiarizing, buying papers, having someone else take tests for athletes, etc.

But the big question for the NCAA is whether academic fraud goes beyond academic dishonesty. Popular opinion is that based on the eye test what happened at UNC (no-show classes involving little work that included a lot of athletes) is academic fraud. But what about a no-show class that included a lot of athletes which had a lot of work? What about a class that included a lot of athletes where just showing up was enough to get a good grade, but you had to show up?

As a regulatory body, it is the NCAA’s job to draw a (relatively arbitrary) line between what is academic fraud and what is just an easy class at a university; but picking that line has always been difficult. The schools which make up the NCAA and ultimately make the rules have been willing to cede institutional autonomy in a number of areas, but not this core area of what their students are taught.

The NCAA could get out of the line drawing problem by dropping progress-toward-degree requirements and eliminating the APR. But that decision is not without consequence either. Given the choice between more athletes making progress and earning some sort of degree rather than fewer athletes earning “better” degrees, the NCAA has chosen the former.

Hopefully, the NCAA will cut the knot sooner rather than later and come up with a solution that in retrospect looks obvious. But right now, the problems of how to accommodate athletes who might be poorly prepared for college without cutting off too many opportunities and ensure educating them is taken seriously is the hardest question facing the NCAA. And any solution has to tie together initial eligibility, continuing eligibility, clustering, the APR, and junior college rules all in a tidy way.

Do you think the NCAA needs to clearly define “academic fraud?” Will UNC still be penalized despite the positive news today? Let us know in the comments section below, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+!

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