The National Collegiate Athletic Association rarely admits to the need to revisit an infractions case, and particularly one that strikes at the core of academic integrity issues. So when the NCAA announced an unusual and embarrassing return to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to reopen an academic fraud investigation that first came to light in 2011 and resulted in narrowly constructed sanctions in 2012 that affected the eligibility of a single athlete, it marked another confidence crisis in whether the NCAA can control the powerful forces of big-time college sports.
The reopening of the case also served as a measure of vindication for those on the UNC campus and in the media who bravely withstood public ridicule and even death threats.
It is undeniable that academic cheating scandals have spiked in the past decade. A 2011 review by Inside Higher Ed found a significant rise in serious academic violations during the past decade. Some critics attribute the spike in cheating to the weakened initial eligibility standards of the NCAA’s academic reform initiatives, while others point to the inherent incentives garnered from winning.
Recent media stories document a trend of selective universities admitting athletes with woefully unprepared reading skills. They are handed to academic support advisers who manage them in predetermined class schedules and place them in academic majors that neither educate them nor prepare them for a career. The university’s traditional deal with the athlete is a bona fide college education in exchange for athletic talent. Too often the promise of an education is unfulfilled. The spikes in these fraud cases are but a fraction of the daily fraud perpetrated against athletes, and the second-class education given to them.
Several highly publicized academic scandals in major athletic programs have gone largely unaddressed by the NCAA. The University of North Carolina fraud case exposes numerous serious allegations of fraud and cover-up by athletic staff, coaches, faculty and administration, with an emphasis on shooting the messengers. The scandal has been a painful and costly journey for this great public university characterized by a steady leeching of damning indictments from former athletes and a former staff whistleblower in national media.
The focus of the scandal is on a former professor at UNC facing a felony charge (now dropped in exchange for cooperation with UNC) of receiving a $12,000 payment for a class he didn’t teach. In the interim, several investigations conducted at the request of the university administration have consistently concluded that this was not an athletic scandal.
In May 2014, the university contracted with Kenneth Wainstein, at $990 per hour, to conduct an independent investigation of the scandal. Advantaged by the cooperation of the professor and his former administrative assistant, Wainstein appears to be sharing his findings with the NCAA. Wainstein’s investigation has prompted a reexamination of the claims from Mary Willingham and others of a widespread and long-term academic fraud scheme designed to keep unprepared athletes competing.
The shared findings may expose the method used to protect the eligibility of underprepared basketball and football athletes through classes that were designed to secure high grades, demanded little time or work in the form of an often-plagiarized paper, and denied them the opportunity for the education the NCAA proudly advertises as its primary mission.
Although UNC offers the most recent example of fraudulent eligibility schemes to maintain prized athletes, recent history has demonstrated similar instances at other major athletic programs and a disturbing trend. In 2006, a scandal at Auburn University revealed unusually large numbers of directed readings courses from a “jock doc” to football players to enhance their likelihood of remaining on the field in exchange for no attendance and little work. In what is commonly known as major clustering, one sociology professor called his department a dumping ground for athletes. The NCAA did nothing.