NCAA’s response to damning UNC report will define its future

In October 2000, the NCAA Committee on Infractions handed Minnesota’s men’s basketball program a one-year postseason ban, reduced scholarships and vacated a Final Four appearance because a secretary for longtime coach Clem Haskins had written papers (with his knowledge) for at least 18 players over a five-year period. In its report, the committee described the violations as “among the most serious academic fraud violations to come before it in the past 20 years. The violations were significant, widespread and intentional. More than that, their nature — academic fraud — undermined the bedrock foundation of a university and the operation of its intercollegiate athletics program.”

On Wednesday, Kenneth L. Wainstein released the results of an independent investigation into academic fraud at the University of North Carolina so massive in scope that the word serious hardly does it justice. If three rogue employees and 18 cheating basketball players over a five-year period at Minnesota merited those strong words, what will the NCAA eventually say about a bogus-class scheme in Chapel Hill that Wainstein found to involve more than 3,100 students — 47.4 percent of them athletes — over 18 years?

Wainstein describes a culture in which academic-athletic counselors for the football and basketball teams knowingly steered borderline students to Afro-American studies office manager Debbie Crowder’s sham classes for the primary purpose of keeping players eligible.

Just how widespread was this ring of corruption? Jan Boxill, a philosophy professor whose formal title is director of the Parr Center for Ethics, steered women’s basketball players to Crowder and literally named their grade. “Did you say a D will do?” Crowder wrote to Boxill in an e-mail about one player who had apparently recycled an old paper. “Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs,” Boxill replied.

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It’s standard practice these days to mock the NCAA for its antiquated rules and haphazard enforcement of them, but the North Carolina report does not involve tattoos for memorabilia, free hotel stays or agent payments. It details systemic abuse of the one area the NCAA purportedly holds most dear. Its mission statement, according to president Mark Emmert, is “to be an integral part of higher education and to focus on the development of our student-athletes.” Those Enterprise rental car commercials, those “going pro in something other than sports” PSAs, the obsession with APR scores and Graduation Success Rates — all reinforce the NCAA’s stated-though-not-always-followed contention that academics are paramount to the college athlete’s experience.

So today, Emmert and the NCAA face a defining moment. What are they going to do about North Carolina? How do you appropriately reprimand a university whose employees spent 18 years making a mockery of higher education? Who put the competitive needs of athletics above the academic development of students? Who made “the most serious academic fraud violations in 20 years” — Haskins’ 18 cheating basketball players — seem like child’s play when compared with the unfathomable scope of UNC’s “shadow curriculum.”

I don’t know what the appropriate punishment is. There’s nothing in the NCAA handbook to address something quite like this, and even if there was, the organization could make up something else if it pleases. It did with Penn State. It did with those Ohio State Sugar Bowl players. The North Carolina scandal comes at a time when there’s never been less faith in the NCAA’s enforcement process.

In fact, the NCAA has largely stood by on the sideline as the UNC scandal unfolded over the past four years. The Committee on Infractions did slap the Tar Heels’ football program with a one-year bowl ban in 2012, but that was primarily for extra benefits violations stemming from former assistant John Blake’s ties to a sports agent. The academic fraud covered in that report centered on a lone tutor, Jennifer Wiley, helping players write papers.

It was due to that investigation, though, that details began to emerge about a scourge of athletes taking phony classes in the AFAM department. Report after report followed, but the NCAA showed no intention of intervening, apparently accepting the premise in initial university audits that the scandal was an academic, not athletic, issue.

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But then, last June, the NCAA announced it was reopening the case in Chapel Hill. The timing was no accident. Wainstein had begun his work in February and, unlike previous investigators, was able to speak with the two primary culprits, Crowder and her longtime boss Julius Nyang’oro. The floodgates apparently opened, and today, Wainstein delivered a report that definitively shows both the academic and athletic arms played a part.

"It’s very clear that this is an academic, an athletic and a university problem," UNC chancellor Carol Folt said Wednesday.

Much like Penn State’s Freeh Report, Wainstein has gift-wrapped the NCAA an investigative report more exhaustive and comprehensive than anything its own people could have produced. And if the school accepts it as fact, then, like with Penn State, Emmert and/or the Committee on Infractions might as well, too.

“The information included in the Wainstein Report will be reviewed by the university and the enforcement staff under the same standards that are applied in all NCAA infractions cases,” said a joint statement released by the school and the NCAA.

The NCAA has no choice but to deliver a stern punishment to North Carolina or risk losing all credibility whenever Emmert or its leaders talk big about the importance of academics. But what that punishment will be is anyone’s guess.

This scandal touched all athletes, not just football and basketball, though Wainstein’s report says the “revenue sports” were the highest-represented. For example, 10 of the 15 members of Roy Williams’ 2005 national title team were AFAM majors. The report states Williams did not know of that department’s shadow curriculum but was “suspicious” enough about the clustering to instruct his hand-picked academic counselor, Wayne Walden, to make sure players were not being steered there.

But Walden himself acknowledged he was aware that an office manager, Crowder, was grading players’ papers, which makes him one of a myriad of athletic or athletic-related employees who knew something was amiss but did nothing to stop it. How could they? As one passage of the report says: “It was quite clear to the counselors — at least those in the revenue sports — that they were being evaluated by the coaches and judged by their success in keeping players eligible to play ball.”

Maybe wins and trophies will be vacated. Maybe more postseason bans are in store. Maybe something more severe. There’s no blueprint.

Whatever the punishment, it has to effectively send the message that academics, more than anything else, cannot be compromised for the sake of athletics success. The cynics will say that already happens, that there’s jock majors and easy classes at every school. Maybe so, but we don’t know that.

We only know what happened at UNC. And if the NCAA does not demonstrate the extent of its disincentive, then it does risk what happened at UNC happening everywhere else.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.