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Crisis in Confidence: Academics In Collegiate Athletics

By Jo Potuto, University of Nebraska

The Committee on Infractions (COI) has spoken. North Carolina committed neither academic misconduct under NCAA bylaws nor provided impermissible academic assistance to student-athletes in the provision or administration of classes that they took.


It seems that no one, with the exception of North Carolina, likes the result. Certainly the pundits don’t. The media doesn’t either. Plus, the COI clearly stated its dissatisfaction in its written report. There is one thing we should all understand, the result in the North Carolina case was predicated on recent NCAA academic legislation.


In theory, there is nothing amiss with the principles at play in the new legislation: (1) Academic standards are in the sole control of a member institution, not in an athletics association to which the institution belongs; (2) decisions whether course requirements meet institutional standards are in the sole control of a member institution, not an athletics association to which the institution belongs; and (3) athletes do not receive an impermissible academic benefit if that benefit also is available to other students.


The way these principles work in practice is that the enforcement staff accepts an institution’s declaration that coursework met its academic standards and that there was no academic misconduct. The staff then moves to consider whether there was impermissible academic assistance, which is triggered only if four things are true:


  1.  There was substantial academic assistance. The example NCAA staff gives for substantial assistance is that it needs to be more than half of a paper.


  1.  Assistance was provided by university staff or boosters.


  1.  The assistance led to a mistaken certification of athlete ineligibility.


  1.  The assistance to athletes was not generally available to all students. In other words, the assistance constituted an extra benefit to student-athletes.


Under these principles, the NCAA enforcement staff could still review an institution’s claim as to its academic standards to assure they are bona fide and were not created to avoid NCAA sanctions. It is unclear, however, whether the enforcement staff is prepared to do this. And under these principles, an institution will have violated NCAA bylaws even if it applies its own standards if it provides classes not available to other students.


The COI applied these principles to the facts of the North Carolina case. It found that under these principles the evidence supporting the case as charged by the enforcement staff did not show that impermissible academic assistance was provided. Also, as anticipated by these principles, North Carolina has revised several of its academic policies in an attempt to assure that it has better control over the type of classes offered, and their rigor.


The COI did the right thing here. Its job is to interpret and apply the bylaws adopted by member institutions, not apply its own version of what it thinks the bylaws should say.


The problem is in the principles embedded in the new academic legislation. They underplay the need of all institutions to have some baseline assurance regarding campus academic standards. They also underplay the inevitable proof problems in showing a failure of bona-fide assessment of academic rigor or of showing impermissible academic assistance as defined in the legislation.


At the very least, there needs to be a redefining of what constitutes substantial academic assistance. This redefinition should be in terms of how much assistance need be given in an individual case and, more so, in recognizing a systemic failure as constituting substantial assistance without regard to the proofs as to the extent of assistance in individual cases.


In addition, there needs to be a recognition that staff member disregard of information regarding academic assistance provided by others may also trigger an impermissible academic assistance case. This disregard can be overt and willful, but it also should constitute staff disregard if an athletic department has no (or ineffective) systems in place to uncover impermissible academic assistance.


There also needs to be a reassessment of the extra benefit component of impermissible academic assistance. Athletic departments are positioned to take advantage of “benefits” in ways no other student can. Athletic staff, moreover, are subject to pressures regarding athlete eligibility for which there is no equivalence on the greater campus. These facts have to be recognized in assessing academic violations.


Full disclosure here: I served on the Division I Committee on Infractions. Nebraska, my institution, opposed the new academic legislation. If, as I hope, the current uproar reflects a sustained dissatisfaction with the academic reform legislation, then amendments need to be proposed as soon as possible.