NCAA punishment is anyone's guess

Athletes took fake classes to boost GPAs
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Story highlights

  • UNC is awaiting its punishment for academic fraud where athletes took sham classes
  • Study finds "lack of consistency" in how universities are punished
  • Universities self-police and report wrongdoing to NCAA

(CNN)When football season begins, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels will have more than just 12 games to worry about. They're also facing the looming judgment of the NCAA infractions board for the worst academic fraud case in the history of college sports.

The NCAA found evidence of academic fraud -- five Level 1 violations -- and is pursuing sanctions against the university. The fraud went on for 18 years and involved members of the athletic department pushing athletes into sham "paper" classes where plagiarism was rampant, the university's own investigation found. It was institutional cheating used to keep players' grades up.
But if you want to take a guess at how severe the NCAA's sanctions will be, good luck.
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    A study of dozens of recent cases of academic fraud across the country found that when it comes to investigating and punishing universities for wrongdoing, the NCAA is all over the map.
    Three respected university researchers analyzed 39 allegations of academic fraud since 1990, including UNC, and found a "lack of consistency" in how the allegations were handled. They also found that the NCAA is more inclined to "provide sanctions that keep in mind the impact on the larger association than practicing equitable decision-making."
    "We found there were great inconsistencies," said Gerald Gurney, a former athletics-academic director at the University of Oklahoma who is now also the president of the Drake Group for academic integrity in collegiate sport. "There have been cases of obvious academic fraud ... and the NCAA has not been investigating those cases. And we are scratching our heads wondering why."
    Gurney, along with Eric Snyder, also of the University of Oklahoma, and Ohio University's David Ridpath, examined cases in which the NCAA punished universities, as well as high-profile cases where it appeared the NCAA did not investigate.
    According to the NCAA rules, if cheating benefited the eligibility of an athlete, and a member of the university staff knowingly participated, it is considered academic fraud.
    But Gurney and his team found cases at two high-profile universities, Michigan and Auburn, which they say met that standard but were never investigated, and they believe there could be more that went unreported.
    In the Michigan case, uncovered by the Ann Arbor News in 2008, hundreds of athletes took independent studies classes offered by one part-time faculty member. Critics say it would be impossible for that faculty member -- who was only working 10 hours a week -- to teach the classes, which were the equivalent of four teachers' course loads.
    Ultimately an internal university investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, and the NCAA decided not to pursue it.
    At Auburn, 160 independent studies classes were offered in one year, and almost all were taken by athletes, specifically in football and men's basketball, a New York Times investigation found. Like Michigan, Auburn did an internal probe. It found the problems were the result of poor oversight and record keeping. Again, the NCAA did not investigate.
    "To not even investigate institutions that have at least strong allegations that meet the two-prong test gives the perception of inequity and unfairness," Gurney said, presenting his research earlier this year at the College Sport Research Institute conference. "It gives the perception of the NCAA using situational ethics. What is best for the situation is best for the NCAA."
    The NCAA told CNN it has no comment on those cases.
    The Gurney-Ridpath-Snyder research also found disparities in how the NCAA handed down its punishment in other cases. For example, in March 2011, Arkansas State was given a $43,500 fine, among other things, as punishment for "major violations" involving 31 football, basketball, baseball and soccer players -- some who got extra benefits and some who were involved in academic fraud.
    But two years prior, Florida State University was penalized, but not fined, when 61 athletes on 10 different teams, including the moneymakers football and basketball, were found to have been cheating. The NCAA called it "extremely serious" and "most egregious."
    Snyder says a bigger school with a more serious offense should be required to pay more money. "If 31 athletes was $43,500 dollars (in fines), shouldn't 61 student-athletes be almost two times the fine for Florida State? Roughly $87,000?" he said.
    "They (the NCAA) aren't going after big-time college institutions," Snyder said in presenting his team's research. "The NCAA coming and saying this is an institutional issue, not an NCAA issue (at Michigan and Auburn), but then to go to Arkansas State ... and sanction the hell out of them, becomes an ethical issue. At UNC they only went in after public pressure mounted. Why not go back and investigate Michigan and Auburn?"
    In 2013, after criticism over its handling of several cases, the NCAA released a chart outlining how it plans to hand down punishment for infractions. It includes guidelines for scholarship penalties, fines, coaching bans, and probation -- similar to what you might find if you looked up sentencing guidelines for crimes.
    Of course, one could argue that this process is similar to the way that prosecutors arrive at plea agreements with defense attorneys. Not all cases are identical, and deals are made based on circumstances, cooperation, and sometimes even the likability of the parties involved.
    And not every cheating school gets identical punishment from the NCAA.
    "There is variability," said Rick Burton, professor of sport management at Syracuse University, who often thinks the NCAA gets a bad rap. "Variability in the activity, in the people addressing the issue, both at the university side and the NCAA side."
    But, like criminal defendants, schools should all have the right to the same process, and many critics of the NCAA say that's not a certainty afforded to universities when they're sanctioned. Instead, the NCAA says, "member schools are responsible for determining if violations of its academic standards occurred."
    It's self-policing, and investigations only go as far as the universities want them to.
    "It may be fair to say that it's a very difficult place for the NCAA to monitor comprehensively the broad number of schools that are members of the association," Burton said.
    And that could explain why Michigan and Auburn got a pass -- their internal probes said there was nothing to see, and the NCAA took them at their word.
    It also explains why UNC got a pass for so long.
    Remember, the NCAA stayed away from UNC for the first four years the scandal there unraveled. During that time, UNC insisted there was no wrongdoing in the athletic department. It wasn't until a new chancellor hired former federal prosecutor Ken Wainstein to take another look at its scandal that the NCAA came back to find infractions.
    This practice goes beyond academic fraud cases. For example, when the NCAA parachuted into State College, Pennsylvania, to punish Penn State for its involvement the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, it relied heavily on the findings of a Penn State-funded report completed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, which has since been widely criticized. The NCAA did not conduct an independent investigation.
    And when the NCAA went to Coral Gables, Florida, in 2011, to investigate a University of Miami booster who was accused of giving cash rewards and ordering prostitutes for players with the knowledge of the coaches, the NCAA's enforcement staff skirted its own rules by gathering information from the man they were investigating.
    NCAA officials said they are investigating 20 different institutions for academic fraud, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Last year, the NCAA announced it was forming a committee to redefine academic fraud, saying it needed to decide "how much institutional autonomy" and "how much oversight" there should be.
    But there are other areas in which the NCAA is inconsistent. For example, CNN reported last year that the NCAA is no longer enforcing health and safety rules, because it says it leaves those up to the schools. That means that it will go after a player who sold his autograph on eBay, but not a university who put that kid into a game too soon after a concussion.
    All of this unpredictable oversight has led some lawmakers to question whether there's some other agency that can step in to make sure that universities aren't skipping over the "student" half of the student-athlete.
    "The way they handle the investigations ... every single one is conducted inconsistently and arbitrarily," said Rep. John Katko, R-New York, at a recent press conference in support of a bill that would establish a presidential commission to overhaul college sports. "I think it's high time we have an independent panel of people take a fresh look at what the NCAA has become," Katko said.
    It would seem that the federal Department of Education should be able to ensure that all students are getting an education, but the department delegates that to the accreditors.
    In UNC's case, for example, the school was put on probation for 12 months by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which has no immediate impact. As long as it demonstrates that the sham classes aren't still happening, UNC will likely not lose any federal funding.
    During a November panel discussion on the topic, Ted Mitchell, the Department of Education's undersecretary, said he'd love to see the federal government have more authority to crack down on educational fraud, just as it cracks down on financial abuses.
    But it's simply not the case.
    "I'd love to be able to have all of those tools in my hand to go to the University of North Carolina and say, 'That was really bad and so you're going to lose Title IV eligibility (federal student aid programs) for two years.' Something like that," Mitchell said.
    The reality is that, instead, UNC's biggest punishment for its academic scandal will likely come from the NCAA. So the punishment could either be huge, or it could be minimal. Predictions are all over the place.
    So is the NCAA.