North Carolina Has a Real College Sports Scandal on its Hands

Oct 23, 2014

Georgia running back Todd Gurley allegedly signs autographs for money, and is suspended indefinitely. Reggie Bush receives "improper" benefits from an agent while at USC: his 2005 Heisman trophy is vacated, and the NCAA bans USC from postseason play for two years. Ohio State players sell memorabilia, and they get suspended--while the Buckeyes are hit with a one-year bowl ban.

The media and others have all labeled these events "scandals." But really, it's not all that scandalous to receive money from a third party who wants to give it to you. Only in college sports, where schools have placed restrictions on an athlete's ability to profit from his or her skills, are such actions scandals.

Now, however, we have a real one.

For years, the NCAA has propagated the idea of the "student-athlete" who represents his school on the field, while receiving a top-notch education in the classroom. If schools are still going to require that athletes remain students in good-standing -- and there's no inkling that this rule will change -- academic fraud makes this standard a sham. Some administrators at the University of North Carolina, a proud school with a proud alumni and fan base, have sponsored one the most egregious cases of academic fraud in college sports history.

According to a report by attorney Kenneth Wainstein, a former 19-year justice department official and Homeland Security advisor to President George W. Bush, between 1993 and 2011 over 3,100 North Carolina students enrolled in "paper" classes in the school's Department of African and Afro-American Studies. These courses required no classroom time, little work, and produced inflated grades. Between 1999 and 2011, athletes took approximately 1,871 paper classes, almost half the total; football and men's basketball players took nearly a quarter of these sham classes.

The report says a student services manager in the department, Debby Crowder, managed many of these "independent studies" classes; Crowder registered the students for classes, assigned them paper topics and then graded their work, even though she was not a faculty member. These papers almost always got A's or B's, even if they were shoddy or largely put together by a tutor. The chair of the department, Dr. Julius Nyang'oro, aided Crowder in developing this "shadow curriculum."

Certain academic counselors in UNC's Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes knew about the sham classes, and steered athletes into them so they could remain eligible to play. The report names counselors for the football, men's basketball, and women's basketball teams who knew of this shadow curriculum. "What was most disappointing to me was that a group of academic counselors for student-athletes took advantage of deficient classes largely just to boost a player's GPA, without regard to whether those kids were getting a real education," says Wainstein, now chair of the white collar defense and investigations group at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft.

The University appointed Wainstein's law firm to investigate the fraud case earlier this year. "That something like this took place within one of the finest universities in the nation, it's hard to fathom how it happened," says Wainstein.

One popular offering was Swahili classes; students could satisfy their foreign language requirement by writing a paper about Swahili culture in English. Twelve of the 18 students enrolled in these classes were athletes. Crowder's retirement in 2009 sparked a sort of panic among the football counselors. One wrote an email to the football operations coordinator, imploring that players get their work in so Crowder could grade it before she left: "Ms. Crowder is retiring at the end of July … if the guys papers are not in … I would expect D's or C's at best. Most need better than that … ALL WORK FROM THE AFAM DEPT. MUST BE DONE AND TURNED IN ON THE LAST DAY OF CLASS."

In November 2009, two counselors led a meeting with the football coaching staff, including then-head coach Butch Davis. They showed the coaches a slide, warning them that these paper classes NO LONGER EXIST. "What was part of the solution in the past?" read the slide. "We put them in classes that met degree requirement in which they didn't go to class, they didn't 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 counselors then showed two more slides comparing the GPA of eight football players in the paper classes with their GPA in other classes. The average paper-class GPA was 3.61, their GPA in other classes was 1.917.

This case speaks to the challenge of "reforming" college sports. Unless college athletes become paid employees who don't have to go to school -- some academics have proposed this solution, arguing it's a more honest system -- change must come from within the schools themselves. The NCAA can't have a cop on every campus, poring over athlete transcripts, hopping in and out of classes to make sure they're legit.

Institutions should be honest with themselves. Are these "student-athletes" we parade in front of packed stadiums and arenas academically eligible in name only? Are they getting a real education? We have to trust the adults in the room, running what are supposed to be enviable institutions, places of "higher learning." If we can't trust the "teachers," we can't fix college sports.

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