Within hours of the NCAA's filing of the brief that outlined its defense in a federal antitrust case that goes to trial Monday, ESPN revealed former North Carolina basketball player Rashad McCants told Outside The Lines he was kept eligible through a series of bogus classes designed -- at least in part -- to keep Tar Heels athletes' grades high enough to be able to play. The juxtaposition of these two events probably wasn't intentional, but it highlights the NCAA's biggest problem as it prepares to defend itself at trial against a cadre of blood-sniffing attorneys in O'Bannon vs. NCAA.
All McCants did was put a famous face -- and some more direct, specific allegations against North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams he had vehemently denied -- on an issue the reporting of Dan Kane of the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer blew wide open back in 2011. At this point, no one is even arguing about whether some North Carolina athletes were buoyed for years by a series of crib courses run through the school's Afro-American studies department. They were. Those facts aren't in dispute. Who knew and when certainly remains in dispute, and this would be the crux of the matter for an NCAA investigation into the classes. The issue is that, to this date, there is no evidence such an investigation has been launched.
That's a problem for the NCAA as it launches its defense in the case brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and several other athletes over the fact the NCAA's rules allow schools and the NCAA to sell the name, image and likeness rights of athletes but forbid anyone from directly compensating the athletes for those rights. According to the brief filed by the NCAA's attorneys Thursday, a bedrock of the association's defense will be the principles espoused in almost every NCAA manual ever printed. Here is what the NCAA's attorneys wrote:
"Colleges created the NCAA to help enforce rules that protect the amateur and academic values they have chosen for intercollegiate sports: '[The] basic purpose of this Association is to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body and, by so doing, retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports.' ... To that end, coordinating themselves through the NCAA, colleges and universities have agreed on several 'basic principles' for intercollegiate athletics, including two that are directly relevant here: (1) 'Student-athletes ['SAs'] shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived,' and (2) SAs must be students whose athletic 'activities are conducted as an integral part of the [SA's] educational experience.'"
The first quoted section comes from a section of the NCAA Manual titled "Basic Purpose." The second quoted section comes from a section titled "The Principle of Amateurism." (Never mind that Judge Claudia Wilken has already cracked, "I don't think amateurism is going to be a useful word here" and banned it as a reasonable defense. The NCAA forges ahead.) Basically, the NCAA's attorneys are saying what the NCAA's leaders have always said. It's not about money, they say. It's about education. These are real students, they say, not wannabe pro athletes on campus strictly to entertain a public whose cable and satellite bills include significant charges that fund coaches' salaries, athletic directors' salaries and locker room waterfalls. That, they say, is the key distinction. But if schools aren't actually educating those athletes, that defense falls apart.
Which brings us to the NCAA's handling of North Carolina. This academics scandal didn't blindside the NCAA. It was unearthed as reporters and rival fans -- let us not forget the contributions of the readers of the PackPride.com message boards here -- dug into an agent scandal that had NCAA investigators making regular visits to Chapel Hill. This investigation snared Tar Heels defensive line coach John Blake, who received a five-year show-cause penalty after he was accused of steering players toward an agent and prematurely ended the college careers of football players Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn, Greg Little and Michael McAdoo, who were found to have taken money and/or gifts from agents or agent runners. The NCAA cared deeply about the possibility that Austin may have gotten a few free flights or hotel nights. McAdoo was found to have taken $110 in extra benefits and was found to have committed three acts of academic fraud. McAdoo tried to sue the NCAA to get back on the field. Unfortunately for McAdoo, his attorney included a sample of his "work" in the attached exhibits. His paper was almost entirely plagiarized, and this revelation inspired people such as Kane to look even deeper into the athletic-academic relationship in Chapel Hill.
This should have inspired a deeper look by the NCAA, but the organization had essentially closed the books on North Carolina. While that case had an academic component, the issues were blamed on a rogue tutor. More important to the NCAA was the fact that the COI could declare victory over the scoundrels who might slip someone a plane ticket or a few thousand dollars for being good at football. The NCAA banned McAdoo partly for academic reasons but never bothered to look into the system that cultivated and encouraged academic fraud. By their actions -- and by their inaction -- NCAA president Mark Emmert and his staff have declared again and again what really matters to them.
If you're going to stand before a judge and explain that academics are part of the reason schools can't share a slice of an ever-expanding financial pie with the players that people pay to watch, then you'd better have a stellar record of standing up for academic integrity. The NCAA can't say much there. It found a rogue tutor at North Carolina while missing a fraudulent department. Other than that case, the last FBS school to get popped for academic fraud was Florida State in 2009. Nearly every other case the NCAA has pursued in the financially flush upper reaches of the FBS has been about money. Specifically, they've been about the players getting some.
North Carolina wasn't the only school keeping its athletes eligible. Its people were just the ones dumb enough to get caught. Considering the fact that those charged with enforcing academic integrity within the NCAA weren't even actually looking for systemic academic fraud, that's an impressive feat. Of course, the NCAA will argue that academics are essentially a "states' rights" issue. Each school has wide latitude to design its own curriculum, and the university presidents who sit on the various NCAA councils aren't keen on publicly horsewhipping their colleagues' academic programs. Also, anyone who has attended a large public university such as North Carolina knows that any student -- athlete or not -- can made the academic experience as challenging or as easy as he or she chooses. That complicates matters for the NCAA, but when obvious cases of academic fraud get dropped in the organization's lap, it probably should act on them if it intends to portray itself in court as a defender of academic integrity.
The NCAA may get a mulligan with North Carolina. On Friday afternoon, the News and Observer's Kane reported Julius Nyang'oro, the professor at the center of the case, will cooperate with the independent counsel UNC hired to investigate the scandal. Thanks to North Carolina's open records law, that investigation should result in a trove of public records and testimony upon which the NCAA enforcement department could piggyback if it ever decides to address the issue.
If academics actually matter to the people running the NCAA, this case will get investigated. But if all the NCAA actually cares about is whether players get a few thousand bucks above the value of their scholarships, it will be ignored as it has been for the past three years. And then we'll know how honest the NCAA's defense in the O'Bannon case really is.