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How Serious Are Fraud Allegations at North Carolina?

More than a year after allegations of academic improprieties surfaced in the University of North Carolina’s athletic department, we’re still a long way from knowing the full extent of the problems and whether the NCAA might issue new sanctions.

You wouldn’t know that from a statement the university released last week, in which it said that the NCAA had yet to find any rules violations following an apparently extensive joint investigation. That assertion led to a chorus of unfair criticism against the NCAA for failing to act.

Several investigations still have yet to be completed in Chapel Hill, including one led by a former North Carolina governor. And the allegations—which include reports of players’ enrolling in aberrant courses, unauthorized grade changes, and forged faculty signatures—could still lead to NCAA sanctions, say former enforcement and infractions officials at the NCAA, and others familiar with its investigation.

What once looked like an open-and-shut case of high-profile players’ taking bogus classes to stay eligible is anything but straightforward. In this analysis piece, I explore a few myths surrounding the case, which could help explain the public’s heightened expectations of penalties and give clues to where things might be headed.

Here’s one of the more interesting myths, and what I write about it:

This is one of the biggest academic scandals college sports has ever seen.

Pat Forde, the national college columnist for Yahoo! Sports, was among several writers to weigh in on the problems in recent weeks, saying that North Carolina appears to have “made a mockery of its ballyhooed academic mission for a long time in order to gain competitive advantage in football and men’s basketball.” Its alleged violations, he argued, could call for the most severe of NCAA penalties, as it may have demonstrated a lack of institutional control.

A university report released in May found that Julius Nyang’oro, a former chair of the department of African and Afro-American studies, and Deborah Crowder, a former department manager, had been involved in creating at least 54 classes that had little or no instruction.

Through a public-records request, the Raleigh News & Observer determined that athletes had accounted for nearly two-thirds of the enrollments, with football players taking up more than a third of the seats.

Last month the newspaper found evidence that Julius Peppers, a former two-sport star at North Carolina who is now an all-pro player in the NFL, had gotten D’s and F’s in many courses, but had received a B or better in some of the no-show ones.

According to the player’s transcript, which the university accidentally posted on its Web site, he was allowed to take an independent-studies class the summer after his freshman year­—a course typically offered to more-experienced students who have demonstrated academic proficiency. Those classes appeared to help Mr. Peppers maintain his eligibility in football and basketball. (In a statement released by his agent, Mr. Peppers said he had committed no academic fraud.)

It’s hard to see how those alleged transgressions, which stretched back to the 1990s, didn’t provide certain athletes with an unfair advantage. But are they among the worst ever, as some observers have claimed?

On the continuum of academic fraud in the NCAA, the worst violations usually involve accusations of academic dishonesty, in which someone else does the work for the athletes or they either buy or plagiarize papers or get access to exam answers ahead of time, says John Infante, a former Colorado State University compliance officer, who now works as an NCAA expert for Athleticscholarships.net, a Web site on recruiting.

On the opposite end, he says, are examples of athletes who cluster in easier majors or are directed into snap courses.

Somewhere in the middle are independent-study courses where there’s less assurance that the players are actually doing the work.

Poorly supervised independent-study courses were part of the problem at North Carolina, the university’s report says. But the university also found evidence that students had completed written work.

For those and other reasons, maybe this won’t turn out to be one of the worst academic scandals we’ve seen, says Mr. Infante. But the North Carolina case could turn out to be one of the more important ones in pushing the NCAA and member institutions to take a closer look at how athletes progress through the system.

“The NCAA as a whole … needs to move beyond [the Academic Progress Rate] and the awarding of degrees into regulating how athletes are educated,” he says. “If it starts with stricter regulation of online and independent-study classes, that sounds like a good first step.”

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