College Sports

NCAA rejected recommendations to halt academic fraud, newly released documents show

Newly released NCAA records show a Pac-12 president came up with a way to help the NCAA catch schools who fraudulently help student athletes stay eligible and avoid complaints of NCAA enforcement overreach.

But his proposal failed after an NCAA committee found little support from athletic conferences.

University of Oregon President Michael Schill made the proposal for a panel of university presidents who are not serving on NCAA committees to identify egregious academic fraud. He said having a panel of academics making that decision would address long-standing opposition member schools have had toward letting NCAA officials determining what constitutes academic fraud. NCAA rules currently leave that decision to the members.

But Schill’s proposal didn’t survive. It was dropped despite two special NCAA committees’ recommendations in the wake of the UNC-Chapel Hill academic-athletic scandal that the association step up policing of academic fraud in egregious cases.

The abandonment of a proposal that puts the decision in the hands of academics shows member schools are worried about more fraud being uncovered on their campuses, says a college athletics expert.

Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel University sport management professor, said the proposal appeared to be an effective way to address universities’ stated fears. Staurowsky co-authored the book “College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth.”

“The fact that the association is so resistive to this kind of scrutiny suggests that there is so much (academic fraud) out there than they want to have revealed,” she said.

The News & Observer reported in August that two high-level committees within the NCAA — the Division I Presidential Forum and the Division I Board of Directors — chose not to take up a proposed bylaw to catch egregious academic misconduct.

But what wasn’t widely known, however, is that they had been presented with a compromise option.

Public records requested by the N&O

Correspondence obtained by the N&O through a public records request shows that Schill made the proposal in April and he said he believed the other Pac-12 presidents would support it.

“Enact an ‘egregious violation’ provision like this, but provide that allegations would be adjudged by a panel of presidents from NCAA schools who are not part of a continuing NCAA body,” Schill wrote in an email on April 16 to NCAA staff and UNC-Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam, who leads the NCAA’s Presidential Forum.

“Since instances are likely to be very rare it should be easy to recruit these presidents on a one-time only basis,” Schill continued. “Only presidents would judge these cases; not athletic directors or others.”

Schill made his proposal several weeks after California lawmakers began taking up legislation negating the NCAA’s authority to prevent college athletes from seeking paid endorsements off of their names, images and likenesses. That widely-supported legislation became law last month with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. The Pac-12 includes four major California universities – UCLA, USC, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley.

Schill also proposed removing NCAA discretion from “non-egregious” cases of academic misconduct, leaving those decisions up to member schools. He predicted both proposals would have Pac-12 support if passed in tandem.

“The idea is I am willing to increase discretion for one category if we can decrease it in another,” he wrote. Schill declined through a university spokeswoman to comment on his proposal.

Support from NCAA council

The proposal drew support from the NCAA Division I Academic Council, according to a June report, finding a presidents panel would provide the proper “guardrails” to protect schools from NCAA enforcement overreach.

The NCAA and member schools bring in millions of dollars through broadcast rights, ticket sales and other revenue streams, but they prohibit athletes receiving anything in compensation beyond the full cost of their educations. They contend the educational opportunity is a fair trade off for the athletes’ labor.

It’s a contention that is starting to fray amid the wave of state and federal legislation giving athletes the right to profit off of their names, images and likenesses.

South Carolina and other states have bills similar to California’s introduced or commitments from lawmakers to file them. U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a Greensboro Republican, has filed comparable legislation in the House.

Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National Collegiate Players Association, said Schill’s unsuccessful proposal speaks to why California lawmakers passed their legislation — they don’t believe the NCAA can adopt their own meaningful reform. The association advocates for athletes’ right to compensation, health and safety standards and academic opportunities, and describes the NCAA as an “economic cartel.”

He said what happened to Schill’s idea appeared to another example of “that economic cartel squashing a reform idea that could have helped improve academic protections for college athletes.”

The academic fraud reform effort stems from the outcry following the NCAA Committee on Infractions’ decision two years ago that it could not punish UNC-Chapel Hill over classes that offered high grades but no instruction. A detailed investigation by a former federal prosecutor found an academic secretary created and graded many of the classes. More than 3,100 students took at least one.

The investigation led to several dismissals at UNC, along with a year’s probation from its accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.. UNC also adopted dozens of reforms.

UNC escaped NCAA sanctions by claiming the classes did not violate university rules at the time they were offered, and the classes were made available to all students. But the prosecutor’s investigation found academic counselors to the athletes, particularly in the money-making sports of men’s basketball and football, knew that the secretary was creating the classes and grading them. Those counselors steered athletes to the classes, helping to explain why athletes accounted for nearly half of the enrollments while making up less than 5 percent of the student body.

The NCAA’s academic working group found that the association’s rules are effective in catching athletes who cheat academically, as well as the athletic staff who help them. The problem, the group said, is when those on the academic side cheat to help athletes stay eligible.

The correspondence and other records obtained by the N&O gives little explanation why the reform proposals didn’t survive.

The working group’s recommendations were handed to the NCAA presidential forum. The forum’s steering committee then sought feedback on the proposed “egregious academic misconduct” bylaw and the presidents panel from the Division I athletic conferences and four NCAA Division I committees, including the academics and infractions committees.

All were given a form with check boxes to vote. The form included space for comments.

What happened to the proposal?

But the forms did not go back to the steering committee, which could have made them subject to public records laws, and helped shed light on why the bylaw and panel didn’t garner support. NCAA staff collected the forms and then produced a verbal summary of the responses to the forum’s steering committee.

A forum report indicates 28 of the 32 conferences responded, but it doesn’t say which ones, and whether the responses were written.

Scheduling issues prevented the full forum from meeting to review the responses. That was left up to the steering committee, which recommended against pursuing an “egregious conduct bylaw” in its report to the Division I Board of Directors. It made no mention of the presidents panel proposal, though the board had been made aware of it in earlier reports.

“Comments trended toward concern that such a provision would be unnecessary and that recent changes in the infractions process will capture systemic academic malfeasance. As such, the (forum’s) Steering Committee decided not to submit the concept at this time,” the steering committee’s report said.

The steering committee said the proposed bylaw could be revisited in the future if academic misconduct persists.

One of the recent rule changes the steering committee referred to allows the NCAA to import information and findings from outside investigations. The NCAA is now using evidence from the federal sneaker money criminal case to seek sanctions against N.C. State and Kansas.

But the forum also anticipated accrediting commission actions, such as the rare step SACS took in putting UNC on probation, would help the NCAA in academic fraud cases. The forum’s reports indicate that NCAA staff were asked in January to reach out to the accrediting commissions about the new rule.

No subsequent correspondence or reports show how much the accrediting commissions are willing to help the NCAA on academic fraud matters. Michelle Hosick, an NCAA spokeswoman, said she didn’t have “any further information on interaction with accrediting agencies.”

Staurowsky said she suspects the accrediting commissions have said little publicly about the NCAA’s rule change because they aren’t set up to catch academic fraud, either.

“If that mechanism was working, we would have well known about North Carolina before the long march to get to the truth,” she said. “There is nothing in that mechanism in any way, shape or form that would address the issue, because the accrediting agencies rely on the schools to be truthful.”

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Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.