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Why McAdoo's Plagiarism Is Ultimately Irrelevant

Among the nuggets of information released in the filing of Michael McAdoo's reinstatement lawsuit against the NCAA and UNC were copies of e-mails between McAdoo and tutor Jennifer Wiley as well as a copy of the paper that earned him an Honor Court sanction and the source list that Wiley formatted and from which she created a works cited page.

The crux of UNC's appeal on behalf of McAdoo was that the penalty of permanent ineligibility was excessive. UNC's legal and administrative team cited examples of other cases where other people wrote entire papers for players that did not result in punishment this severe, so a case where a tutor did not actually write the paper but only assisted with citations should not warrant a stronger penalty than that.

Not long after the release of the supporting documents were released, message board monkeys at a rival fan base's website began poring over McAdoo's Swahili 403 paper and its citations and discovered that significant portions of the paper were cut-and-pasted verbatim from the internet. They then decided to shout this information to the mountaintops and declared that McAdoo should be charged with double secret first degree plagiarism by the NCAA (h/t THF).

Meanwhile, some of the national media who have not been following the story closely picked up on the howling at the moon over McAdoo's plagiarism. Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples, who took a break from hammering UNC over the football unpleasantness to write a fairly sympathetic piece about McAdoo's crusade against the NCAA earlier this week, wrote a follow-up about how a plagiarism allegation would complicate his lawsuit. And the national blog Sports by Brooks wrote a breathless piece about how UNC AD Dick Baddour repeatedly defended McAdoo's plagiarized paper to the NCAA. In turn, that led to possibly the dumbest tweet in the history of Twitter, in which SBB suggested Baddour's defense of McAdoo's paper was worse than Jim Tressel lying to his bosses and the NCAA about the mess at Ohio State.

The problem is, the Staples/Brooks/WuffLoon uproar, like a lot of the uproar in the UNC football investigation, entirely misses the point.

First, let me state unequivocally that McAdoo obviously cut-and-pasted the paper. Kudos to our lupine message board brethren for hashing that out. And it is a legitimate question to ask why, if a bunch of board monkeys can figure out in five minutes that the paper is plagiarized, couldn't UNC's lawyers, administration, or Honor Court  make the same determination? But the answer is remarkably simple: it was, and still is, irrelevant to the matter at hand.

UNC and McAdoo both conceded that Wiley provided help on the Swahili paper and there was no contest to the Honor Court findings that McAdoo receive an F in the class and a semester suspension. Rather the argument all along has been that the penalty of permanent NCAA ineligibility was far too harsh given the circumstances.

On the other hand, the NCAA considers any assistance on a player's work to be academic fraud, whether it is five words or five hundred words. In addition, in a 2007 directive the NCAA Division I Committee on Reinstatement declared that a finding of academic fraud should begin at a penalty of permanent ineligibility and mitigate backwards to a minimum of reinstatement with a one-season penalty. The NCAA held in both the initial ruling and in the appeal that the factors in the case dictated at least a two-year penalty and since McAdoo only had two years of eligibility left, there was no reason to reduce the permanent ban.

With this in mind, there are five reasons the fact that McAdoo plagiarized the Swahili paper is irrelevant to this case:

  • First, to the NCAA, academic fraud is academic fraud. The penalty would be no more or less severe if the charge were plagiarism, having Wiley do the citations and bibliography, or having her write the entire paper.
  • Second, the paper in question has already been sanctioned in the severest manner by both the NCAA and the UNC Honor Court. It's like looking at a murderer sentenced to death row and saying "yes, but he robbed a bank, too!" What else can be done to McAdoo?
  • Third, UNC's appeal was based on the severity of the penalty while conceding that wrongdoing had occurred. UNC was basing its appeal on precedent of other cases of academic impropriety and the argument could be made that permanent ineligibility is extreme even for plagiarism of a single paper.
  • Fourth, the NCAA's interest in this case is the participation of Wiley, first as a university tutor and later as "a representative of athletic interests". If it had merely been a cut-and-paste job and Wiley had nothing to do with it, it would not have fallen to the NCAA but only to the Honor Court; and
  • Finally, there is no further appeals process with the NCAA. As far as they are concerned, the case has exhausted all avenues with them. This matter will now be decided in the courts and the NCAA will not be ruling or reconsidering anything regarding McAdoo, so this revelation of plagiarism simply doesn't matter.

The question that then remains is, and always has been, the severity of the penalty, and that is what those banging the plagiarism drum are missing. UNC cited a number of cases in which other students wrote papers and student-athletes passed them off as their own and received a penalty less than permanent ineligibility. UNC's argument was that McAdoo wrote the paper himself, down to the citations and even marking in the text where the citations should go. Clearly in hindsight the work was not his own, but cut-and-pasted from the internet. But that was not the point of this line of defense.

UNC was trying to show cases in which students intentionally turned in other students' work as their own (such as the ECU baseball case where players paid a tutor to write papers for them) and had their eligibility reinstated. So while we know now, eight months after the appeal hearing, that McAdoo copied significant portions of his paper from the internet, the fact remains that Wiley did not assist in the creation of the paper, which is what UNC meant in saying the work belonged to McAdoo. It is a simplistic, if faulty, position: she didn't help him write it (a fact more clear now that we know he cut and pasted) so he did the work.

Likewise, Baddour's "defense" of McAdoo's paper that was trumpeted in the Sports by Brooks piece is taken somewhat out of context. SBB uses a pull quote that says, "We are arguing that this was Michael McAdoo work, even the citations were his work." Again, this must be viewed in light of UNC's defense, which was that Wiley did not write the paper or find the citations, which is factually true even in light of new evidence about the paper.

But it might have been helpful for Brooks to note that the pull quote was part of Baddour's closing statement, which gives some context to the entire discussion:

...It's important to keep in mind that we don't deny that some misconduct occurred here. We're arguing the penalty is too harsh in this situation. We are arguing that this was Michael McAdoo work, even the citations were his work. They were not correctly formatted, however. To not reinstate Michael McAdoo is unduly harsh and not warranted in this situation. He sought out the help of the tutor not because he was expecting inappropriate activity. He was in fact, what he expected, what he got, what he thought he was getting was appropriate. The case precedent simply does not justify this level of penalty...

ABCers and others have held up the revelation of the plagiarism as some sort of aggravating factor and further evidence of either the incompetence of malfeasance of UNC when neither is necessarily the case. Again, UNC's appeal argument to the NCAA was based on the amount of help Wiley provided on the paper, not the paper itself, because her help is what made this an NCAA violation. If he had merely plagiarized the paper without Wiley's involvement, then that becomes an honor court situation and not an NCAA case.

Again, it is a legitimate question to ask why UNC officials didn't vet McAdoo's actual paper more carefully, but with the issue having been handled by the Honor Court and the NCAA interested in Wiley's involvement, an argument can be made for why they didn't. And despite the talking heads and ABCers claiming that UNC held this paper up as some sort of evidence of academic integrity, they did not. They simply maintained that Wiley did not help McAdoo create the paper or the citations, a fact that is actually supported by the discovery of his cut-and-paste job.

Ultimately, as mentioned above, the revelation of plagiarism is irrelevant because this case is no longer an NCAA matter but is headed to the courts. And the issue before the court will be what McAdoo and his attorneys feel is the NCAA basing their ruling on inaccurate information, refusing to consider updated information and certain precedents, and the failure to follow their own procedures. The Swahili paper has already been declared fraudulent and adjudicated as such, so it doesn't matter at this point whether the fraud is improper help or plagiarism.