Villanova University won the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, clinching their first national title in 31 years by nailing a buzzer-beating three pointer to defeat North Carolina 77-74. While these last-second heroics had Villanova fans on the edge of their seats, perhaps those breathing the biggest sigh of relief were the officials and executives at the NCAA.
Half of the teams in this year’s Final Four were sanctioned or under investigation by the NCAA. Syracuse University was hit hard for infractions and violations ranging from academic fraud, drug abuse, and payment for ‘volunteer’ work. Head Coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for nine ACC conference games and 108 of his wins were vacated. The basketball program lost 12 scholarships over four years, must pay a fine of $500 for every game they played in which ineligible students participated, has a reduced number of off-campus recruiters, and must return money to the NCAA that it received from the Big East Conference revenue sharing for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 tournaments. This could cost the school over $1 million (Syracuse.com). But, nevertheless, the Orange and their Hall of Fame coach made it to the tournament this season and ran all the way to the Final Four as an 11 seed. Who did they face? The University of North Carolina, which has its own share of problems.
North Carolina admitted that for several years players in multiple sports took fake classes in order to maintain their eligibility. In North Carolina – much like our great state of Kentucky – basketball is king. They have been to 19 Final Fours (more than any other school) and have won five National Championships. This is why the timing of UNC’s response to the NCAA’s official Notice of Allegations seems a little fishy. In August, four days before the deadline to turn in their response, UNC uncovered additional violations in women’s basketball and men’s soccer. Because of this, the NCAA had to amend its charges against UNC, which, when completed, restarted the 90-day period North Carolina had to respond to the new, amended allegations (usatoday.com). This meant that the 2015-16 men’s basketball season would be over before they had to confront the NCAA. While the men’s basketball program hasn’t been specifically cited for violations, men’s basketball players have been enrolled in the questionable classes.
Suspiciously, athletes at UNC were pushed toward taking classes in African American Studies. In a video released by ESPN, of which a screenshot was captured by Bryan Graham of Sports Illustrated, you can see a final term paper on Rosa Parks written by a UNC athlete. The paper was 146 words long.
The student received an A-minus for the class.
Mary Willingham, a former academic counselor at UNC, did research at the university and determined that nearly 60% of the student-athletes were reading at a fourth-to-eighth grade reading level (sportingnews.com). That suggests that at least some percentage of UNC athletes have trouble reading “James and the Giant Peach” and “Freckle Juice.” At first, UNC denied Willingham’s claims of fraudulent classes and academic corruption. In 2015, however, UNC settled Willingham’s lawsuit against the university to the tune of $335,000.
“It’s about the students and not about me,” Willingham said. “I got an education, but those students left without one, and we still have a system that doesn’t work.” (cnn.com)
The problem is that the system actually does work – for the schools. UNC is far from the only school to violate NCAA rules, particularly those pertaining to academic integrity. In 2015, the NCAA said they were investigating 20 schools for academic fraud (deadspin.com). But does it really matter? Sports are big moneymakers for colleges and communities, especially at high profile schools like UNC and Syracuse. Other big-time programs are under fire for different violations. Louisville, UConn, Miami, Ohio State, USC, and others have all had major rules violations in the recent past. What’s the common thread between UConn and Louisville basketball and Ohio State and USC football? They win.
It’s hard to be surprised anymore when ESPN breaks news on a college sports scandal. It’s a regular occurrence, and it pretty much always has been. Money is intertwined into the fabric of the collegiate athletic culture, and as long as North Carolina and Syracuse are playing on the polished floor of a 70,000-seat stadium, while tickets go for $500 and pro scouts look eagerly on, it always will be.