The head of NCAA enforcement says academic misconduct is on the rise in college athletics and his department is currently handling 20 open investigations.
Vice president of enforcement Jon Duncan said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press the cases involve both prospective and incoming athletes trying to become eligible for college competition, and enrolled athletes receiving impermissible assistance from university and athletic department personnel.
Eighteen of the cases involve Division I schools, though NCAA policy precludes Duncan from revealing which programs are under investigation.
North Carolina has been the focus of the NCAA's most high-profile infractions case involving academics. Last year an independent investigator found that hundreds of Tar Heels athletes over nearly two decades were steered toward sham classes that gave out high grades for little work. In the last four months, Weber State football and Georgia swimming have been sanctioned by the NCAA for academic misconduct violations.
Duncan said reasons for the uptick are difficult to pinpoint, but he speculated potential contributors are raised academic standards for athletes and recent reforms that tie academic performance to a team's postseason eligibility.
More digital and online course work ''creates opportunities for mischievous behavior,'' Duncan said. Though electronic fingerprints and digital trails can also aide in investigations.
Also, cheating seems to be more common campus-wide, not just in the athletic department, Duncan said.
''None of what's happened here has surprised us,'' said Duncan, who took over enforcement in 2013. ''In fact, it's why we created the academic integrity unit in 2013, because we saw this on the horizon and we wanted to be in a position to deal with it proactive rather than reacting to it. Whatever the drivers were.''
Academic misconduct investigations can be challenging because not all cheating by a student-athlete breaks NCAA rules.
Notre Dame had four football players suspended all of last season because of academic misconduct. The school needed to report the incident to the NCAA, though ultimately it was a violation of the university's honor code that cost the players the season.
For academic impropriety to become an NCAA violation at least one of three factors must be involved:
- Involvement by members of an institution or athletic department staff.
- An athlete is treated differently than the general student population.
- Academic misconduct led to an award of credit that allowed an athlete to compete when he or she would have otherwise been ineligible.
''It's easy to talk about those different buckets and categories in sort of scholarly, academic conversation, but they don't come to us packaged and labeled as falling into and out of those categories,'' Duncan said. ''We have to spend a lot of time, dedicate a lot of resources, look at a lot of paper and perhaps conduct a number of interviews to determine whether we're in one of those categories or not.''
West Virginia University director of compliance Keli Cunningham said the challenge for those on campus comes in the tracking.
''It's not like monitoring areas such as a prospect's visit to campus where you can see an expense statement and know if someone received a meal and shouldn't have or monitoring phone calls where you can see a coach's phone bill and know if he/she made too many phone calls,'' Cunningham said in an email. ''If a staff member works closely with a student-athlete and that student-athlete receives a high grade for the course, that doesn't mean that the staff member acted unethically and triggered academic misconduct.''
Kathy Sulentic, who leads the NCAA's academic integrity unit, said they are seeing two themes in the academic cases being investigated.
''What we're seeing are people who have an association with the program, by people it could be anybody from a professor, a campus adviser, a registrar, a teaching assistant, who has a relationship with the athletic department or a particular sports program and they use that relationship in an effort to - and I'm using air quotes here - to help a student-athlete engage in misconduct,'' she said.
The second scenario stems from coaches delivering directives to coaching and support staff members about an athlete's academics.
''And the coach will say, `We need to get this student athlete eligible.' Not telling them exactly what to do but saying we need this young man or young women and some sort of academic misconduct occurs,'' Sulentic said.
Enforcement staff does not make NCAA bylaws though it can help guide membership to where it wants to go with legislation.
The NCAA has been going through a stage of deregulation as it tries to simplify its bylaws, but that's not necessarily the case when it comes to academics.
''The conversations that we have been in and that we have heard have not been deregulatory in nature,'' Duncan said. ''They're just trying to find a way to distinguish between what is an NCAA matter and what is not.''
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP