Welcome back to Failure to Monitor. Last time, we talked about when the NCAA handed down the death penalty to SMU football in a desperate attempt to regain control over the member schools. It worked for the most part, with teams falling in line out of fear that they would be next. For a while, all the league had to deal with was the occasional run-of-the-mill recruiting scandal. One such incident happened at the University of North Carolina, where multiple players, including Marvin Austin, Greg Little, Robert Quinn, and Michael McAdoo were all permanently banned from the NCAA for taking money from an agent. But these payments weren’t the only thing the league uncovered. Little did they know, this seemingly simple investigation would dig up something much deeper. Something that would end up striking at the very heart of the NCAA.
I mentioned McAdoo earlier because his case was a little bit different from the others. He wasn’t punished solely for taking money. He also was found guilty of academic fraud in a separate university hearing after having his tutor write a bibliography for him. Like everyone does in college sports, he sued the NCAA in order to be reinstated. The case was dismissed almost immediately, but more importantly, it forced him to release the paper with the alleged cheating. Dan Kane at the Raleigh News & Observer found that not only did the tutor write the reference page, but multiple sections were completely plagiarized (In case this wasn’t college football-y enough already, Kane was helped out by a random NC State fan on Twitter looking to take down a rival). Wondering how the honor court at a major university could miss something that obvious, Kane decided to dig deeper. That led him to the transcript of Marvin Austin and his interesting summer classes.
A lot of athletes will enroll in summer courses before their freshman year, letting them work out on campus and catch up on any academic requirements they might be missing out of high school. This isn’t what Marvin Austin did though. He took a 400-level course in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM). For those of you who’ve been out of school for longer than you’d care to admit, that’s a senior-level class. It’s a little odd, but not nefarious on its own. Maybe Austin was just a genius who wanted to challenge himself in the classroom. That may have been the case, but the rest of his transcript suggests otherwise. Later his freshman year, Austin had to take a remedial writing class because his SAT scores were so low. Something fishy was clearly going on, but Austin wasn’t the only star UNC defensive lineman with a suspect transcript. One year later, thanks to a technologically challenged UNC staffer and some curious NC State fans, Future NFL Hall of Famer Julius Peppers’ UNC transcript was posted online. It included a cumulative GPA of 1.82, well below the NCAA requirement of 2.3. What’s even more interesting, however, is that 9 out of the 10 classes in which he received a B- or higher, a grade that would keep him NCAA eligible, were in the same department: AFAM.
Now is a good time to introduce one of the central figures in this story: Julius Nyang’oro. He was the chair of the AFAM department at UNC. He also taught a few classes, mostly in the summer. He actually resigned as chair after Marvin Austin’s transcript became public and took on another administrative role. In one of his earlier classes, he failed to report blatant plagiarism in one of his student’s papers. That student? Michael McAdoo. At this point, there were too many connections between these scandals for it to be a coincidence. UNC launched a full investigation into the AFAM department and released their findings in May of 2012. They essentially said that there was no wrongdoing and that Nyang’oro had just been slacking as a professor. There was no widespread fraud, so no harm no foul. However, former North Carolina governor Jim Martin commissioned his own outside investigation into the situation, and they had some very different findings. The Martin Report alleged that the AFAM department had offered over two hundred fake classes and created a series of “independent studies” where students were only required to turn in one paper all semester. What came next was the real bombshell. They reported that Nyang’oro and fellow administrator Deborah Crowder had forged hundreds of signatures from other professors in order to give athletes the grades they needed to remain academically eligible. This scandal had grown far beyond a tutor helping a little too much and entered the realm of felony fraud. In classic NCAA fashion, they continued to investigate for another two years.
Any hopes UNC fans had for a quick resolution were ended in 2014 when tutor Mary Willingham went on CNN and levied more harrowing accusations. She claimed that the team itself had a database of old papers that players would pull from and submit, that she was instructed to steer players towards AFAM courses, and, most shockingly, that 60% of UNC football and basketball players could only read at a middle school level. That last point was heavily disputed, and she was never able to produce any evidence for how she got that number, but the damage to their public perception had been done. Even though the university spent the next few years instituting reforms to prevent this kind of fraud from ever happening again, it was clear that the NCAA had to do something. As an organization that claimed to be about academics first, a group that calls its players “student-athletes”, the NCAA was surely going to hand down the harshest punishment we’d seen since SMU. Their impending verdict hung over the entirety of college sports like a dark cloud for nearly six years until October 13, 2017, when the NCAA finally released their verdict.
Everyone was stunned. Thirty-three years after shutting down an entire program for paying players, the NCAA found that one of the largest cases of academic fraud in history did not violate any NCAA rules. All because non-athletes were in the fake classes too. It was a loophole of epic proportions. The organization was totally cool with fraud, as long as it wasn’t just helping their “student-athletes”. The verdict also exposed who the rules really applied to. A member institution can run a massive shell game that robs players of an education with impunity, but when one of those players gets a little too much help on a paper they’re banned for life. Most importantly, this created the biggest loophole in the history of loopholes. The NCAA stripped itself of all power when it comes to policing academics as long as a single non-athlete is involved. After fighting tooth and nail for decades to gain absolute power over the member schools, they gave it up in an instant. The precedent was set, and the downfall of the NCAA had officially begun.