After years-long probe, NCAA finds no academic violations at UNC

(Chris Keane/Reuters)

One of the worst academic scandals in the history of college sports ended with a whimper Friday, with the NCAA ruling it will not punish the University of North Carolina’s athletics department for deficient “paper courses” taken by thousands of students, many of them athletes, over nearly two decades.

In a 26-page decision released Friday morning, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions concluded that because the lenient classes in the school’s African and Afro-American studies department — which never met, rarely involved university faculty and often provided passing grades in exchange for one short paper graded by a university secretary — were also taken by regular students, NCAA investigators couldn’t prove the classes constituted an unfair benefit for North Carolina athletes.

“It’s important to understand that the panel is in no way supporting what happened. What happened was troubling,” said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, a member of the panel that heard the case. “But the panel couldn’t conclude violations. That’s reality.”

North Carolina had faced potential penalties in multiple sports — including men’s and women’s basketball, as well as football — that could have included postseason bans and the vacating of two men’s basketball championships won during the time span the deficient classes were offered. Instead, the only sanction the NCAA handed down at the conclusion of a 3½ year investigation was a “show-cause” order for former African and Afro-American studies department chair Julius Nyang’Oro, an essentially meaningless penalty that will make it more difficult for the retired professor to obtain a job in college athletics.

The saga dates from 2011, when the News & Observer published the first in what became a series of stories about the irregular courses offered in the African and Afro-American studies department. From 1993 until 2011, a university-commissioned investigation later found, Nyang’Oro and department manager Deborah Crowder offered no-show classes to more than 3,000 students, nearly half of them athletes.

The two sports most represented among these classes, the report found: football and men’s basketball. Former star football player Julius Peppers took several of the courses, and Rashad McCants — a star from the Tar Heels’ 2005 NCAA men’s basketball championship team — has said he took several bogus classes, and that tutors directed him to the courses and wrote papers for him. This was all well known in the athletic department, McCants has claimed. Coach Roy Williams and other players from the 2005 team have disputed McCants’s allegations.

The investigation was spearheaded by Kenneth L. Wainstein, a partner with the Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft law firm.

The NCAA noted in its findings that North Carolina has changed its tune over the probe’s findings. Where it once said that the Wainstein report uncovered evidence of academic fraud, the school later disavowed it, even after it was spurred by its findings to take corrective measures.

In total, the school reportedly spent more than $18 million on the legal costs involved with the matter.

After expressing skepticism about the shifting stance displayed by North Carolina officials on the Wainstein report, Sankey noted that NCAA President Mark Emmert will forward a copy of the organization’s findings to North Carolina’s academic accreditor.

“The panel concludes that it is more likely than not that student-athletes received fraudulent credit by the common understanding of what that term means. It is also more likely than not that UNC personnel used the courses to purposely obtain and maintain student-athletes’ eligibility,” the NCAA wrote in its report.

However, its power to punish North Carolina over such matters is limited because it “defers academic fraud determinations to member institutions.”

While UNC athletic officials have said they had no knowledge of the courses and did not participate in steering players to them, the Wainstein report noted that North Carolina’s football staff seemed especially concerned when one of the administrators overseeing the classes retired in 2009. Athletics academics counselors and football coaches held a meeting in which a PowerPoint presentation explained the importance of the African and Afro-American studies classes in keeping football players academically eligible.

“We put them in classes that met degree requirements in which . . . they didn’t go to class . . . they didn’t have to take notes, have to stay awake . . . they didn’t have to meet with professors . . . they didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material,” the presentation said. “THESE NO LONGER EXIST.”

Of the North Carolina athletes who took the classes in question, 50 percent played for the Tar Heels football team, which was the subject of a separate NCAA investigation over academic fraud and improper benefits earlier this decade. As a result, the school fired Butch Davis as coach, vacated all 16 wins from 2008 and 2009, took away nine scholarships over three academic years and put the program on two years of self-imposed probation. The NCAA went one step further, banning the Tar Heels from the postseason in 2012.

During last year’s Final Four, which culminated with North Carolina’s seventh national championship in men’s basketball, Williams told reporters he didn’t expect his team to get sanctioned.

“My firm belief [is] that we did nothing wrong,” he said. “And that’s just the best way to put it. Were there some mistakes made? You’re darned right there were. Were there some things I wish hadn’t happened? You’re darned right. But there were no allegations against men’s basketball . . . So I’ve sort of hung my hat on that part, and I know we did nothing wrong.”

The Tar Heels basketball teams are scheduled to hold their version of Midnight Madness on Friday night, kicking off the new season. A banner celebrating last season’s men’s basketball national title will be raised to the rafters at Smith Center. The team’s 2005 and 2009 title banners will remain as well.

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