Almost half a decade into its investigation of academic fraud involving athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has finally started to find clear evidence of the athletic department's wrongdoings.
The NCAA's inquiry centers on an 18-year period during which UNC offered fake "paper classes" to thousands of students, about half of them athletes trying to maintain their eligibility. While UNC has sought to distance its multimillion-dollar athletic department from the scandal by suggesting that academic departments perpetrated the fraud, recently released internal emails show that athletic department employees did, in fact, outline and write papers for athletes.
None of this should come as a surprise.
In big-time college sports, athletic departments are incentivized to focus on eligibility, not education. The NCAA can punish schools whose athletes fail to graduate, progress toward degrees, or violate school academic misconduct polices, suspending players and prohibiting postseason participation.
By contrast, the association does not punish schools for shuttling athletes through courses and majors that don't truly belong at the college level, leaving players with relatively worthless degrees. As a result, North Carolina—like many other schools—had every reason to make sure its athletes were getting good enough grades to pass, and little motivation to care about academic quality.
After all, national championships and millions of dollars in television broadcasting rights and athletic donations were at stake.
"The incentive at the very heart of it is money," said Ted Tatos, an economist and former University of Utah professor who has analyzed thousands of pages of material related to the UNC scandal that have been released to the public. "This is really what drives the whole engine. If this wasn't profitable, it wouldn't occur."
The calculus works like this. In order to make money, schools need to win. In order to win, they need to attract the best players. In order to attract the best players, they need to be willing to accept players who can't necessarily do college-level academic work.
In order to keep those players on the court or field, they also need to keep them eligible—and that's where the problems start.
"It's just part of the culture," said Mary Willingham, a former North Carolina learning specialist who was a key whistleblower in uncovering the scandal. "We're all cheating, all of us across the country, because the pool of athletes we're all recruiting, they're all coming from an underprepared background.
"It would be like offering me a scholarship tomorrow to go to medical school. But I'm just not prepared, so it would be a worthless scholarship to me."
When you're paid to win basketball games. Photo by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Willingham believes "all students can learn," and that athletes can be successful in the classroom even if they are unprepared for college, but she also says that schools must recognize and accommodate their needs.
Too often, that's not the case. Partly out of institutional pride, and partly out of a need to maintain the amateurism-supporting fiction that athletes are regular students who just happen to be extremely good at sports, schools refuse to acknowledge that, say, a star basketball player has a sixth-grade reading level.
Instead, schools engage in academic fraud to help athletes pass courses they can't otherwise handle, or they put athletes in worthless, watered-down majors. Documents and testimony from witnesses like Willingham indicate that North Carolina chose the former approach.
"It's a little bit of arrogance in my opinion. [The message is] 'We don't have remedial coursework here,'" she said of the administration's attitude toward unprepared athletes. "'We have 28,000 students who apply for 4,000 spots, we don't need remedial coursework here.'"
Once athletes are enrolled in classes that are over their heads, tutors are under explicit and implicit pressure to keep them eligible. "You want to keep your job because you don't want to piss off a coach as mighty as [North Carolina basketball coach] Roy Williams," Willingham said. That means doing coursework for athletes, as well as enlisting help from professors.
"I know of at least two instances where athletic department personnel put pressure on an instructor to change a grade," said Jay Smith, a professor at UNC who co-wrote a book on the scandal with Willingham. "And in both of these cases, the instructors were untenured, they didn't have the job security that comes with tenure. They were more easily intimidated than your typical tenured faculty, I would guess."
Schools also can keep athletes eligible by steering them into unchallenging, relatively worthless areas of study, essentially widening the goalposts for their classes and majors. Doing so avoids engaging in outright misconduct; better yet, it allows athletic departments to project the appearance of academic success by conflating eligibility and true scholarship.
It's also what the NCAA's own rules subtly encourage.
The association judges academic performance based on the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which measures whether athletes are on track to graduate, and the Graduation Success Rate (GSR), an inflated graduation rate metric. Both measures use getting a degree as a proxy for actually learning something useful—which is hardly the case if, like at North Carolina, you're an athlete who received passing grades in a fake class that you didn't have to attend in the first place.
"It's exactly the false equivalence between graduation and education," Tatos said. "The UNC case is a prime example. They basically got nothing. There's no metric that ensures athletes get a college education, and people just assume—and I think the NCAA fosters this false perception—that athletes are primarily students."
"It's exactly the false equivalence between graduation and education," Tatos said. "The UNC case is a prime example. They basically got nothing. There's no metric that ensures athletes get a college education, and people just assume and I think the NCAA fosters this false perception, that athletes are primarily students."
When the cheering stops, what kind of education do athletes really receive? Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Even if they aren't going as far as UNC in committing outright academic fraud, many schools still warehouse unprepared athletes in pointless-but-passable classes and concentrations. "Back in the day, at the University of Minnesota, we had a college called General College," said Anthony Crudup, a former player at both Minnesota and Tulane. "General College was basically community college. You majored in community college."
"General college" or "general studies" aren't truly rigorous majors or concentrations, but they're common across college sports. One of Crudup's former Big Ten rivals, Ricky Stanzi at Iowa, described his major in interdepartmental studies as "you're not smart enough to get into business school."
"I've seen instances where you have guys, and I'm sure you've seen it on TV, and it's like people take agriculture, and I'm like, what are you taking agriculture for?" said Marcus Singletary, one of Crudup's teammates at Minnesota. "For me, from an academic standpoint, I came in pretty understanding. I thought outside of football. A lot of institutions, these guys come into the universities and it's strictly football."
Indeed, athletic department academic advisors are known to cluster athletes into easier majors, even if they have greater scholastic aspirations. In the 2006 film Glory Road, which chronicles the 1965-66 Texas Western basketball team, a player explains his failing grades to his coach by saying, "It's just, all the classes are about rocks. I'm a black man, I don't do rocks."
Funny line, right? In the real world, it's not a joke. Some athletes don't get to choose their classes. They are told what they will take. "We all have, I guess you'd say a counselor we're able to talk to for undergrads, and when you first come in as a freshman, you don't have a say-so, they don't really ask you for a plan," said T.J. Theus, a former football player at the University of Wisconsin. "They kind of just sit you in classes, basically classes they know you can handle, and they have a set tutorial person who can guide student-athletes.
"Not to say that it's a dummy class for us, it can be, but at the same time they want to make sure everybody is passing and is going to class, so they can monitor it a lot better."
Theus ended up with a degree in journalism business—a communications major with a business certificate. It suited him because of his time working in radio, but he also had no chance to earn a typical business degree, because his football schedule did not allow for him to take the normal business courses that other undergraduates could take. Willingham terms this mixing and matching of classes until they add up to a degree of some sort "schedule engineering," and says it happened at North Carolina.
"I think a lot of people expect to get a job in what their degree was," Theus said. "A lot of these kids have developmental degrees, sports education or administration or whatever, they're not really getting a degree that will help them get a job. It's them getting a degree just to have one, just to get to play."
Of course, that's point of the system. While it's easy to blame schools such as North Carolina for sacrificing academics at the altar of athletics, the truth is that those institutions are simply responding to the incentives the NCAA has put into place. It pays to have elite athletes major in eligibility because ultimately, it's not the schools that end up shortchanged.
"At the end of the day, who's winning the most?" Singletary said. "It's the institution."
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