One day, someone will tally up all the mail that comes into the NCAA office in Indianapolis and discover it circles the globe twice — or some other preposterous factoid. But in 2010, there was just another full inbox for an NCAA enforcement staff member to go through, with an email from Mary Willingham.
Attached was Willingham’s master’s thesis outlining her research findings at UNC and showing how football players enter college woefully underprepared for the academic rigors ahead.
It’s a critical weak spot for the entire college athletics system. But for an NCAA investigator responsible for policing thousands of programs, it didn’t move the needle — Willingham never received a response.
That same year, a tweet from UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin about free champagne brought the NCAA to Chapel Hill.
The different facets of UNC's academic-athletic scandal have been well-documented, but the role played by the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, has remained out of the spotlight.
Inherent structural flaws in the NCAA’s investigative arm, like inadequate staffing and an over-reliance on self-reported violations, allowed UNC’s system of sham classes to operate unnoticed for 18 years.
“If there’s a place where this discussion needs to occur, it’s at UNC,” said Don Yaeger, an author who’s written extensively on the NCAA. “Beyond everything that has been alleged to happen, one of the great challenges here is just the sheer length of time it’s taken to get to where it is today.”
“That, to me, should be an embarrassment to everyone involved in college athletics.”
A flawed process
The NCAA has the authority to police schools and ensure its bylaws are followed, but only to a certain extent. Any power held by the NCAA is granted by its member institutions, which agree on the rules and punishments they’ll submit to.
It’s a system based, in theory, on cooperation and maturity among responsible institutions. In practice, it resembles inmates running the prison.
“It does exactly what it’s designed to do — it’s a trade association,” said Richard Southall, the director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. Southall held that position at UNC for five years before moving to USC in 2013.
“It allows for the governance of college sports the way the members see fit.”
NCAA oversight relies on tips from whistleblowers or rivals, media reports of major wrongdoing and schools self-reporting their own violations.
“Seldom have I seen a school reporting a major violation to the NCAA that wasn’t uncovered, for example, by a newspaper before it was reported,” Yaeger said. “This idea of self-reporting is truly only effective as we talk about the minor violations — the improper contact, a tweet that mentions an athlete that shouldn’t have, things like that. They’re not saying, ‘Hey by the way, we discovered our largest booster has been paying our star quarterback.’”
Yet the NCAA maintains that its model works and that the optics of major cases where schools fight the enforcement process, like at UNC, overshadow the rest that run smoothly.
“In the vast majority of cases, schools and their administrators and their lawyers show us a genuine, bona fide interest of getting to the truth of a violation," said Jon Duncan, the NCAA vice president of enforcement.
Duncan and members of the NCAA enforcement staff contested claims that media reports most often uncover wrongdoing.
"We have a very sophisticated intake process so that we do the best we can to dedicate those resources to the behaviors that are most likely violations and significantly impact the collegiate model," Duncan said.
Part of the reason for the NCAA enforcement model is by necessity given the magnitude of its responsibilities. At most, a few dozen investigators are responsible for overseeing thousands of programs at hundreds of schools.
“They’re not well-paid; they’re often young. They’re often there only for a limited amount of time,” Yaeger said. “It’s almost a feeder job to a lot of schools.”
Compounding the issue is the lack of subpoena power. While the NCAA can compel coaches, administrators and athletes with eligibility remaining to talk with investigators, former employees or athletes have no reason to participate in investigations.
It’s a complicated situation for even seasoned investigators, and the NCAA enforcement staff often doesn’t have the luxury of experience.
It's why the association so heavily relies on outside information. But by the time journalists or law enforcement discover a major wrongdoing, like in the case of UNC’s academic fraud, it’s often been going on for decades. Whistleblowers have motives that investigators have to consider, and relying on self-reported violations has obvious flaws.
Southall said the UNC academic-athletic scandal is part of a larger pattern in institutional misconduct.
“These things usually have a life cycle. They usually happen at this university, then that university, and they’re usually blamed on a rogue individual,” he said.
“So everybody’s surprised when it happens at an outstanding academic institution, but it’s just UNC’s turn.”
Willingham was an athletic learning specialist at UNC and blew the whistle on the academic-athletic scandal. She said the NCAA didn’t contact her after she went public in the News & Observer with what she’d seen at UNC.
“No one from the University contacted me and no one from the NCAA contacted me, but I was contacted by CNN, ESPN, HBO, Bloomberg Businessweek — they all got ahold of me,” Willingham said. “But the NCAA didn’t bother.”
She said it wasn't until she left UNC and filed a lawsuit in 2014 that she heard from the association.
“How crazy is that?” Willingham said. “That’s crazy, because you would think that if the NCAA is a regulatory body, which is what they’re supposed to be, that if somebody in this country goes public about blowing the whistle on college sport within a university system, you would think that somebody from the NCAA would call that person.”
Willingham said the system doesn’t set students up for success.
“So, people ask me all the time, do you think your whistleblowing did any good? Do you think any change came out of it?” Willingham said. “And I say that change only happens if we together admit what we see right in front of our face, and that is that college sports is a system that’s fundamentally flawed.”
Opportunities for reform
There have been repeated calls for reform in the NCAA since the 1950s — the most formal of which came in 1991 through a self-commissioned review.
The special committee, led by former Solicitor General Rex Lee, found procedural and regulatory failings within the NCAA.
The association implemented nine of the 12 recommended changes, dealing mostly with the enforcement and judicial processes. The organization did not adopt the committee’s recommendations to allow witnesses to appear during hearings, hold open hearings and release hearing transcripts to involved parties — keeping the enforcement process opaque.
“The NCAA has been hauled up in front of (U.S.) Congress a few times and typically they make an effort after being essentially threatened by Congress to fix their system …” said David Ridpath, professor of sports administration at Ohio University. “But it usually takes that type of level of action to get the NCAA to change.”
Since the 1991 report, Congress has held two hearings investigating the NCAA’s enforcement procedures. Gary Roberts, then-sports law professor at Tulane University, made recommendations during the 2004 hearing to "clean up" college athletics — salary caps, revenue sharing, limits on commercial appearances.
“But such sweeping reform of college sports is beyond the scope of this hearing and is likely politically unrealistic,” Roberts said in a prepared testimony.
More likely, Roberts said, reform would come with greater NCAA investment in its investigative and enforcement staff.
“The NCAA is and always has operated its enforcement process ‘on the cheap’ despite having huge resources at its disposal, and the process predictably suffers as a result,” he said.
Each congressional hearing garners attention, but little reform. The same holds true for recommendations made by independent researchers and reviewers.
A 2008 study co-authored by Ridpath and Southall offered reforms to the NCAA enforcement process. Ridpath said he sent the report to the NCAA after it was published. Like Willingham, he never got a response.
A question of jurisdiction
UNC’s primary defense against allegations of academic fraud has long been the NCAA’s lack of academic jurisdiction. UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said in an interview with CBS in February that the NCAA overcharged the school.
“Is this academic fraud? Yes, it is by a normal person’s standards,” Cunningham said in the interview. “But by the NCAA definition (it is not).”
Gerald Gurney, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma and expert on NCAA enforcement, said the NCAA has an entire chapter on academic regulations outlining core values and standards for universities.
The bigger question is whether the NCAA wants the academic jurisdiction, Gurney said.
“I think that there is some truth that the NCAA would like this all to go away,” he said.
The most recent edition of the NCAA Division I manual includes a 36-page section on academic requirements for student-athletes, including stipulations about enrollment and performance in classes at member institutions.
“For (the NCAA) to say that they have limited or no ability to enforce what schools are doing with regards to their curriculum, that’s a cop out, because they do that all the time,” Ridpath said. “They’ve punished schools for less.”
'The NCAA doesn't have the guts'
UNC’s troubles are far from over.
Six years, three notices of allegations and millions of dollars of lawyers’ fees later, the future of programs, championships and sanctions are still largely unknown. Many are calling for the NCAA to hit UNC with the death penalty and shut down the implicated programs.
But there’s a reason it’s called the death penalty and why the NCAA hasn’t issued it on a Division I program since Southern Methodist University football in 1987. The collateral effects to the NCAA of shutting down a major college athletics program, let alone one the caliber of UNC, would be nuclear.
“I laugh when people say, ‘Oh they should get the death penalty,” Ridpath said. “I’m like, ‘The NCAA doesn’t have the guts,’ even though in this case the argument is there to do it.”
In this case, UNC’s strategy of lawyering up and going to war could pay off.
“It doesn’t mean that what I’m saying and others are saying didn’t happen,” Ridpath said. “It’s just that procedurally, they’re going to get the NCAA, I think, on several missteps.”
But experts agree: Something should, and ultimately will, be done.
“I think honestly they wanted to run as far away from this as they can. And they will, and they have in the past. If they have the ability to run away from a bigger school, they’ll do that,” Ridpath said.
“But with North Carolina, if it wasn’t for people in the media … they probably would have been able to stay away from this one. But people just would not let this die.”
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