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UNC, the NCAA, and the AFAM scandal: For people with a life

Because you know it matters, but you have other things to do.

Northwestern v Vanderbilt Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There is a virtually infinite amount of reading material out there about the loveless and endless relationship between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the NCAA that has carried on for almost seven years now. If you have the time and the inclination, some of that work is exceptional, and I commend to you especially the work of Greg Barnes if you care to do a deeper dive.

This column, however, is written on the assumption that there there’s another sort of audience; that there are a great number of people who just want the basics so that they can get on with the rest of their lives. People who, every time they see an article about the UNC AFAM scandal, just don’t have it in them to take the time to review every procedural detail, every twist and turn, and every hot take and red herring that has occurred since Marvin Austin’s 2010 tweet. They just want to know enough to separate the signal from the noise and move on with carpool or practice or doing something more productive.

If that sounds like you, congratulations, you’re a responsible adult. This is for you.

What exactly is the NCAA charging UNC with?

There are technically five charges. As a practical matter, there are only two that are the subject of much discussion, and both of them pertain to pretty much one set of allegations. Since you have a life, I’m going to focus on that.

Are those the “fake classes”?

Well, kind of, although many people who throw around the phrase “fake classes” only have a vague idea of what they’re talking about. As far as the NCAA is concerned, what this refers to is the allegation that between 2002 and 2011, a professor (Julius Nyang’oro) and his administrative assistant (Deborah Crowder) conducted courses which, although advertised as lectures, rarely if ever met in a lecture format.

Instead, they required that research papers be written and turned in, which, the NCAA alleges, were graded with “lax paper writing standards and awarded artificially high grades.” In other words, there were independent study slide classes offered at UNC, and lots of athletes took them.

Did that actually happen?

There’s probably some room for quibbling around the edges (Crowder disputes the claim that meaningful work was not required) but pretty much, yup.

Were these classes just for athletes?

No. More non-athletes than athletes took these classes.

Were the classes a slide for the non-athletes, too?


I live in the real world, and based on that experience, I am pretty certain that athletes (and other students) finding out about slide classes and taking advantage of them is neither novel nor confined to UNC. I may or may not have done that myself, although I am slow and uncoordinated. So what’s all the fuss in this case?

Resisting for a moment the temptation to provide a cynical answer, here’s what I think the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions would claim makes the UNC case different. First, the papers submitted in these classes were frequently graded by Crowder, who is not a credentialed academic of any kind. Second, the NCAA claims that Nyang’oro and Crowder “worked closely and directly with athletics,” allowing athletes greater access to the courses.

Specifically, people the NCAA refers to as “athletics personnel” are alleged to have (i) assisted athletes in registering for these classes, including in some cases after the deadline had passed; (ii) obtained assignments for the courses on behalf of student-athletes; (iii) submitted papers on the players’ behalf (note that the word is SUBMIT, not WRITE); (iv) suggested assignments for some players; and (v) “on occasion,” requested some course offerings on behalf of athletes and recommending grades (this last item appears to refer to an email by Jan Boxill to a professor saying that a female athlete needed a C+) .

These latter allegations are the important ones, because they are what the NCAA is claiming constitutes an “extra benefit.” In order for there to be an NCAA violation, some improper benefit must be made available to athletes that isn’t made available to the general student body. Crowder’s paper-grading doesn’t work because she graded papers for athletes and non-athletes alike.

Who are these “athletics personnel”?

Well, to begin with, they weren’t athletics personnel. Seriously.

They were academic support personnel. Specifically, the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. They reported to the college of arts and sciences, not to the athletic department. That was on purpose. The purpose being to preclude undue pressure on them from anyone in the athletics department.

Wait. I thought that helping with course registration, helping players get their assignments and get them turned in, and helping them select courses was, you know, in the job description of being academic support personnel.

That is because you are a normal person.

So what we have here boils down to the fact that these academic support people were aware that slide classes were available and recommended them to people looking for an easy class, in some cases when the players in question were worried about retaining eligibility?


Well, what the hell? Doesn’t this kind of thing happen with academic advisors for athletes all the time?

I don’t purport to have conducted a national survey of all advisors of athletes nationwide . . . but yes. To provide just enough to illustrate the point:

· Syracuse: PED 259, Varsity Athletics.

· Iowa: IAP 1021, Intercollegiate Athletic Participation.

· Nebraska: ATHP101, Varsity Football Practice.

· Stanford: ATH 1: Varsity Sport Experience

· Auburn: PHED 1810: Varsity Men’s Sports: Football

· NCSU: USC 103 and 104: Introduction to University Education for Varsity Student Athletes

If you don’t think those classes are created for the purpose of providing athletes with easy grades at least in part for purposes of maintaining eligibility, I don’t know what to tell you. And by the way, those courses were intended for varsity athletes only; not the normal student body.

Now, if your immediate response is that any other school’s lack of academic standards for their athletes has no bearing whether what UNC did was right or wrong, you’ll get no argument here. That said, a serious person cannot look at those examples (and there are many more like them) and pretend that UNC’s easy classes are substantively worse in terms of real academic content.

If you want to say this kind of thing should not exist on any college campus, by all means take the floor and demand that it come to an end. But if the substance of UNC’s failing is putting on classes that did more to preserve eligibility than they did to provide real education, they hardly stand alone.

Oh. And if you’re thinking “but those aren’t paper classes,” then here you go:

· Michigan: Independent study psychology classes taught to 85% athletes recommended by academic support and requiring only 2 short papers; no NCAA sanction.

· Auburn: Paper classes (sociology and criminology this time), high grades for athletes; no NCAA sanction.

So why is UNC’s case being treated any differently from those examples?

Tactically, because the NCAA is trying to shoehorn academic conduct that offends it (and to be fair there’s plenty to be offended by) into a category that looks like something that it can punish, since classroom content is ordinarily out of its jurisdiction.

Motivationally, here’s a guess: the NCAA is sensitive to criticism, and especially to criticism that it plays favorites. Jerry Tarkanian once quipped that “the NCAA is so mad at Kentucky that it’s going to give Cleveland State two more years’ probation.” It hasn’t been forgotten.

The NCAA doesn’t want a headline that says they let UNC skate, because they know that whether or not that’s actually true, it’s the headline that will be written and the story that will be believed, and the last thing the NCAA wants is anything that deepens the public perception that they are more interested in profit than in the well-being of athletes. One can only guess where crazy people get such an idea.

It doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of major disagreement between UNC and the NCAA about what actually happened here. So why are they still fighting about this?

The vast majority of the dispute isn’t about the facts, but about the propriety of the NCAA’s conduct of this process. This is a long and involved topic unto itself, but since the purpose here is to be brief, here are some of the key things being argued:

· That the NCAA consulted its own bylaws experts, who concluded that the AFAM classes scandal did not constitute a violation of NCAA bylaws.

· That the NCAA did not disclose those conclusions to UNC; they were discovered by chance.

· That no conduct akin to the AFAM classes scandal has ever been found to be a violation of NCAA bylaws.

· That the NCAA had been made aware of, and provided evidence related to, the AFAM classes at the time of its original investigation and considered it at the time of the original punishment, and that NCAA bylaws preclude the NCAA from taking a second bite at the enforcement apple for conduct it had already been made aware of.

· That there are prior rulings related to the things the academic advisors are alleged to have done in this case (registration for classes, obtaining assignments, submitting papers, requesting course offerings, working closely with professors, etc.), all of which concluded that this conduct was not prohibited at all, let alone an impermissible benefit.

So can a rational person simultaneously believe that the AFAM scandal is embarrassing AND that the NCAA is well out of bounds?

Of course. The NCAA is not tasked with adjudication of every wrong connected to college sports, and you don’t have to be a homer to see that they’ve overreached before in the face of public pressure.


Settle down. I told you this was a summary.

Also, unless your favorite fact involves the administration of the AFAM classes and/or something having to do with Jan Boxill, they’re irrelevant to what the NCAA has charged, but knock yourself out.

It seems like no matter what happens, my NCSU and Duke friends will still claim that UNC’s athletics success is only the result of cheating. This phenomenon seems to have intensified since April 3.

I can’t tell you what the NCAA is going to do, but I can tell you that you may as well get used to that.