For a long time, I’ve been bearish on the likelihood of the NCAA punishing the University of North Carolina for bogus/no-show classes involving student-athletes for a couple of reasons. First, almost the exact same behavior at Michigan and Auburn never lead to any NCAA violations or penalties. And second, the NCAA membership defeated a proposal that would have given them a much clearer role in cases like this.
The recent addendum released to Former Governor Jim Martin’s investigation changes that. The addendum details grade changes that were either unauthorized or suspected to be unauthorized. That includes four permanent unauthorized grade changes as well as 34 temporary grade changes for student-athletes. That is in addition to 215 suspected unauthorized grade changes.
The report explains this away by showing athletes received proportionally fewer grade changes:
While the percentage of temporary unauthorized or suspected unauthorized grade changes for student-athletes is above the proportional student-athlete enrollments in the courses, the fact that student-athletes accounted for less than one quarter of the unauthorized or suspected unauthorized permanent grade changes while representing over a third of the enrollments shows that they were less likely than non-athlete students to have a permanent unauthorized or suspected unauthorized grade change issued.
For the existence of the bogus classes, this logic makes some sense. The higher the proportion of student-athletes enrolled in and getting high grades in a course raises the likelihood that the athletic department may have been involved in setting it up. Even so, it takes more evidence than that, especially in light of the NCAA membership rejecting more oversight of nontraditional courses. But a lower percentage of athlete enrollment suggests the opposite.
A point I’ve been returning to is that academic fraud is not always clearly defined. There is a continuum of shady academic behavior. On the one end is academic misconduct like having someone write a paper, stealing test answers, plagiarism that most agree is academic fraud. On the other end is something like an athlete dropping a class that might lower their GPA. Almost no one thinks that is academic fraud.
Unauthorized grade changes are much closer to the former end of the scale. And on that end of the scale, the involvement of non-athletes students matters less. For example, no one would argue that athletes should be allowed to have their papers written for them so long as the tutor writes papers for non-athletes. On the other hand, it makes sense that athletes should be allowed to drop classes, but only if other students are permitted to drop classes as well.
Even the lack of involvement of the athletics department does not matter. In 2011, the Committee on Infractions sanctioned Arkansas State for major violations involving ineligible student-athletes. Among those violations was an unethical conduct charge given to the director of technology for changing grades without the permission of the instructor. Although the director of technology claimed he talked with an assistant men’s basketball coach, the investigation uncovered no evidence to corroborate that claim.
Grade changes also lead to a major violation regarding academic fraud in Alabama State’s 2008 major violation. Eight student-athletes received grade changes, and in six cases those grade changes kept the student-athletes eligible. There is no evidence of athletics involvement either, in fact the report does not identify the staff member that made the grade changes. Cal State Northridge and St. Bonaventure also had grade-change based academic fraud violations, but those involved extensive interference by the men’s basketball staffs.
With unauthorized grade changes now involved, this case is no longer about whether the NCAA should be policing academic quality. It now includes potential violations that the NCAA has investigated and sanctioned schools for in the past. An investigation of at least the grade changes is needed, along with any other potential violations that come up as a result of that investigation.
Even though the question of whether the NCAA should get involved has a clearer answer, the question of whether or how severely UNC will be punished is still unclear. The NCAA has a four year statute of limitations, which is based on when the Notice of Allegations involving certain violations is delivered. None of the unauthorized grade changes aside from three in Summer 2009 would be within the statute of limitations at this point.
There are two exceptions to the statute of limitations that might apply in this case:
(b) Allegations in a case in which information is developed to indicate a pattern of willful violations on the part of the institution or individual involved, which began before but continued into the four-year period; and
(c) Allegations that indicate a blatant disregard for the Association’s fundamental recruiting, extra-benefit, academic or ethical-conduct regulations or that involve an effort to conceal the occurrence of the violation. In such cases, the enforcement staff shall have a one-year period after the date information concerning the matter becomes available to the NCAA to investigate and submit to the institution a notice of allegations concerning the matter.
In both those cases, the 110 suspected temporary and 14 suspected permanent unauthorized grade changes between Spring 2006 and Summer 2009 would be critical in establishing the exception to the statute of limitations. If most or all those grade changes could not be explained, especially if they helped athletes stay eligible, they would establish a pattern of violations that continues into the statute of limitations period, or would be extensive enough that they might show a blatant disregard for a fundamental academic rule.
In either case, the NCAA is now on the clock. Unless later grade changes are discovered, the NCAA has only until this summer to even use the pattern exception to the statute of limitations. And under the blatant disregard exception, the NCAA would only have one year from now at the latest to investigate and deliver a notice of allegations.