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Mark Emmert Keeps Saying Some Interesting Things

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Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

NCAA President Mark Emmert met with the AP sports editors on Thursday at Syracuse. During the course of the discussion, Emmert was asked about Syracuse's NCAA troubles and also about UNC's. While Emmert refused to get into specifics about UNC's case, he did address why it's not the same as UNC's.

One of the many "hot takes" on UNC in the wake of the Syracuse sanctions being announce was Chapel Hill's issues were the same or worse than what happened in upstate New York. There has even been a suggestion Roy Williams was due to the same level of sanctions that Jim Boeheim received which included a nine game suspension from ACC play.

The problem with those assertions is UNC hasn't received a notice of allegations so we have no idea what UNC will be accused of and if the men's basketball is even included. Secondly, based on what was revealed by the Kenneth Wainstein report there were a long list of  "traditional" NCAA violations found. In other words, the usual brand of "academic fraud" doesn't really show up prominently in the Wainstein report. There were issues with Jan Boxill and women's basketball regarding grade changes and asking for classes. There are a few other eyebrow raising items which the NCAA could flesh out into violations assuming additional evidence is uncovered. However, there is not evidence of athletic department officials being complicit with the type of violations the NCAA has typically penalized as academic fraud over the years.

This is thrust of Emmert's assertion in separating the two cases and also why comparing the two or drawing conclusions on penalties is a foolhardy mission. UNC's case is much more complicated because it deals with something unprecedented, the quality of classes offered. This is an area the NCAA has traditionally steered clear of as Emmert points out.

In short, the NCAA has never been focused on ensuring the classes schools offer meet a certain standard. The primary reason for that is enforcing the necessary standard would be nearly impossible for an organization that is already shorthanded in its enforcement division. The other reason is the is no way on in Hades the schools would allow it. In academia, professors are given a wide latitude in what they teach and the classes they offer. That latitude, often referred to as "academic freedom", is one of the reasons the AFAM paper classes weren't rooted out sooner. The assumption was Julius Nyang'oro had license to offer classes as he saw fit so no one was really interested in checking to see if those classes passed muster, particularly the individuals with direct oversight (*cough* Jay Smith *cough*)

This is where the media at large in its public presentation of the case have sought to grossly oversimplify what is an incredibly complicated case. The media has judged UNC guilty of massive academic fraud however the salient point lost here is whether it is the type of academic fraud that falls within the NCAA's purview. The nature of the fraud is there were classes advertised as lectures but didn't meet or have proper oversight by a professor. So yes, there is a degree of fraud involved and one that strikes at the heart of UNC's mission and integrity top notch public university. Where the water gets muddy is whether an academic department acting in a manner becomes an NCAA matter simply because athletes used the classes? The N&O's Dan Kane, who perpetually hammers the disproportional nature of athletic enrollments in AFAM, would say yes but as cases at Auburn and Michigan have proven, the NCAA hasn't always been so eager.

The "academic fraud" the NCAA has usually sought to curtail is athletes receiving improper help or receiving grades for work they didn't do. Some of the more prominent cases like at Florida State, Minnesota, Syracuse and even parts of UNC's football case involve tutors writing papers for athletes. It involved, as Emmert noted with Syracuse, the athletic department being complicit with said fraud. The NCAA's concern isn't the quality or rigor of classes being offered but whether the athlete receives improper help from the athletic department to complete work or receive a grade.

UNC's present case does involve some of that but the overall issue with the AFAM paper classes doesn't neatly fit into the NCAA's typical academic fraud enforcement. These are classes that originated within an academic department without knowledge of the athletic department. The classes were not super secret ones that only athletes had access but open to all students. The classes also required work be turned in for a grade. While the grading standard and quality of that work could certainly be questioned. there is no evidence athletes received a  benefit in terms of grading versus non-athletes.[Clarification: Wainstein found non-athlete grades were actually higher than athletes in AFAM paper classes. Sentence has been changed to reflect this.]

Michael McAdoo's academic fraud in the football case is a perfect example of the complexity of this situation. On one hand, McAdoo was willing to commit academic fraud to produce work for a paper class because he wasn't going to receive credit otherwise. On the flip side, Debbie Crowder presumably accepted a badly plagiarized paper and gave him a grade for it. Does the NCAA consider the latter a violation, especially if it held true for all students? If so, how can it be proven without reviewing the course work and re-grading the papers which have likely been destroyed?

Ultimately the NCAA will decide whether it wants to really delve into course quality and grading practices, especially when the classes in question were not solely beneficial to athletes. If these were classes with 100% enrollment by athletes(and there were a handful like this), the NCAA could make a case this was a traditional academic fraud case. The fact anyone could take these classes means it was a "benefit" available to everyone not just athletes. That has generally been the threshold for deciding if something should be called an improper benefit or not.

The problem facing the NCAA is the public perception of the case. The media has found UNC guilty in the court of public opinion of "massive academic fraud" without distinguishing whether that fraud is the NCAA's to punish. As noted above, there has been a grossly oversimplification of UNC's case. Add to that the questionable rantings of Rashad McCants and discredited assertions of Mary Willingham the perception exists that UNC may have also killed John Kennedy. Because UNC is said to be guilty of "massive academic fraud" the media is demanding a proportional or even disproportional response regardless of whether it does or should involve the NCAA. This puts pressure on the NCAA to act at a time when the organization's credibility is in tatters. If UNC is punished too lightly, the PR backlash will be significant, even if the punishment is within the confines of the rules.

As for Emmert's comments, the optimistic UNC fan happily takes them as a signal the NCAA might pass on judging the AFAM paper classes. Emmert has certainly gone to great lengths to reinforce the notion that the NCAA isn't a party to what courses schools offer and how they are administered. The question is whether Emmert is softening the ground for whatever happens with UNC or simply offering a position consistent with the NCAA's legal defense in the UNC athlete lawsuit. It stands to reason Emmert's comments are aimed at preserving the NCAA's legal defense in that lawsuit rather than how UNC's case will be handled.

Whatever Emmert's intentions, the notice of allegations will likely appear sooner rather than later at which point we can get a sense what kind of hand UNC has been dealt.