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North Carolina’s Athletic Department Avoids Punishment in NCAA Investigation Into Academic Fraud

The organization finally issued its ruling in the Carolina “paper classes” scandal Friday and did not issue any sanctions

UNC mascot on the basketball court Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The NCAA Committee on Infractions released its final report on its findings in in the academic fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina on Friday, ending one of the longest investigations in the history of the governing body. In the report, the NCAA stated that it could not conclude academic violations against the university.

“While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’ offered by North Carolina,” said Greg Sankey, the committee’s chief officer and commissioner of the SEC, “the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes.”

The only penalties the association levied were against two former academic staff members who refused to cooperate with the investigation for three years. The university was not found guilty of any major violations. In the latest Notice of Allegations, released last December, the NCAA accused UNC of committing five Level I infractions, its most serious violation. Penalties could have included vacation of wins and postseason bans.

The investigation, which officially began in 2014 but stretches back much further, focused on a series of substandard or “paper” classes in the Department of African American Studies (AFAM) that allegedly kept student-athletes above the minimum GPA required to maintain athletic eligibility. According to the Kenneth Wainstein report released in October 2014, 47.4 percent of the identifiable enrollments in these irregular courses were those of student-athletes—a group that makes up just over 4 percent of the North Carolina student body.

Friday’s report was originally planned to be released on October 6, but was pushed back due to “scheduling circumstances” related to the university’s announcement of a multibillion-dollar fundraising campaign.

The academic fraud scandal at North Carolina first came to light in May 2010, with a tweet posted by star football player Marvin Austin about Club LIV—a popular Miami nightclub. That triggered an NCAA probe into the program focused on impermissible benefits provided by agents, and later pointed to a former tutor who provided improper help on classwork for football players. A year later, the Raleigh News & Observer obtained a copy of Austin’s transcript and noticed that he received a B-plus grade in a 400-level AFAM class the summer before his freshman year. Julius Nyang’oro, the professor of the course in question, resigned as chairman of the department that August.

The next spring, the university released a report citing 54 classes in the previous four years that featured almost no instruction. That August, UNC announced the NCAA saw no violations in relation to the academic fraud. In 2014, the association reopened the investigation following claims made by former Tar Heels basketball player Rashad McCants that he’d enrolled in numerous no-show classes.

The NCAA doesn’t have the authority to punish the university for general academic fraud (that falls under the purview of the accrediting agency), so instead it built its case on charges of lack of institutional control and the distribution of impermissible benefits—in this case, the access to those irregular classes. And the organization’s ruling will come as a surprise to many who predicted that the university would face harsh penalties for its football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball programs.

“The record did not establish that the university created and offered the courses as part of a systemic effort to benefit only student-athletes,” Sankey said. “While student-athletes likely benefited from the courses, so did the general student body.”