As March Madness Looms, NCAA Opens Another Violation Investigation into UNC Academic Practices

Just when the University of North Carolina thought it was past the rounds of sanctions centering on academic integrity issues, the NCAA filed a third “Notice of Allegations” as 2016 came to a close. In the most recent notice, the NCAA alleged that the university provided improper extra benefits to student-athletes so that they could remain eligible for athletic competition. The notice goes on to allege that members of the men’s basketball and football programs received improper benefits, restoring a reference to the university’s premier athletic programs that had previously been stricken from earlier NCAA notices of allegations.

This is another notch in a long string of alleged NCAA violations that began in May 2015. One of the NCAA notices detailed how professors would compose writing assignments for student-athletes, and recommend a corresponding grade. The allegations take focus over courses offered by the university’s African and Afro-American Studies Department, where courses did not require students to come to class, and the university did not provide an instructor. Rather, the department provided professors who would work directly with student-athletes by writing papers for the students, and recommend substantially lenient grades, designed to keep student-athletes enrolled in the courses out of academic trouble. The courses under scrutiny were used over the course of several years at the university between 2002 and 2011, during which time men’s basketball team won two NCAA national titles and made several appearances in the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Possible sanctions as a result of the NCAA allegations could include vacating championships and wins earned during those years.

The university has responded by disputing the NCAA’s jurisdiction to issue sanctions over the alleged fraudulent academic practices. In a statement, North Carolina Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham questioned whether the NCAA even had the jurisdiction to sanction the university over its athletic programs. Calling the alleged fraudulent practices “academic irregularities,” the university claims the NCAA Committee on Infractions refused to admit two letters into the record between the NCAA and the university. Cunningham maintains that those letters outlined why the NCAA had jurisdiction, and, because they were kept out of the record, the NCAA gave itself the ability to issue new notices of allegations beyond its jurisdiction.

The ongoing investigations enter its third year plaguing the university, while other colleges are watching with increasing interest. Previously, the NCAA Committee on Infractions charged Cal State Northridge with an academic fraud violation in a case involving the men’s basketball team. Determining whether the NCAA has the jurisdiction to charge an institution with improper academic policies—a role traditionally left to the Federal Government’s accreditation process—will have important implications for many institutions as schools try to balance the increasingly cumbersome schedule of a student-athlete with their educational rigor.

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