A Tale of Two Scandals

It’s almost time to start the Fall semester, so it’s only fitting that another academic scandal just broke in the NCAA. I’ve been receiving lots of questions about it and I’m here to offer a one-word answer. But first, here’s the background information:

On Friday, the Mississippi State football and men’s basketball teams were placed on a three-year probation for academic fraud. According to ESPN, a tutor completed multiple assignments and exams for Mississippi State athletes in exchange for payment. While I think the punishment is far too light, it’s fantastic that the NCAA stepped in and punished the programs involved. However, many sports fans are crying foul, because the University of North Carolina was involved in a similar academic fraud scandal two years ago and escaped unscathed. 

To recap, in 2017, a report from the University of North Carolina uncovered an eighteen-year history of academic fraud. Over that timespan, roughly 3,100 students took a fraudulent “paper class” and were given credit for half-baked assignments and minimal work (please read this essay from the class. It received an A-minus, gives you a good picture of what happened at UNC, and literally takes ten seconds).

Athletes, in particular were funneled into the class, but it was also available to the general student population, which was why the NCAA didn’t step in. Instead, it deferred to the university, because a fraudulent class offered to everyone wasn’t athlete-specific and therefore, not an impermissible benefit.

I call BS. The NCAA didn’t step in because UNC is too valuable in March. 

Many people believe that football is the big moneymaker of the NCAA, but the reality is that the head office generates about 90% of its annual funding from March Madness. That’s also why the NCAA decided to punish Mississippi State, while letting UNC slide in 2017: Mississippi State isn’t nearly as valuable in March.

Mississippi State’s men’s basketball team finished seventh in the SEC last year, as opposed to UNC finishing second in the ACC, the better basketball conference. UNC has a brand name for basketball and March just isn’t the same without the Tar Heels. Plus, keeping UNC out of trouble means there’s a possibility for a Duke/UNC rivalry game in the national tournament. Mississippi State doesn’t have the same March presence or a rivalry so voracious. 

This might feel a little like a conspiracy theory, but there’s a pattern here. Consider Michigan State and the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. The NCAA purported that Nassar’s actions never “substantiated violations of NCAA legislation” and opted not to punish Michigan State for its institutional negligence.

It’s an absurd ruling from an organization that claims to be committed to student-athlete well-being. Many questioned why the NCAA gave Michigan State a hand slap rather than a postseason ban or a department-wide death penalty. Again, I point to March. Michigan State has a tournament-qualifying streak that spans back to 1998 and a fierce rivalry with the University of Michigan, which has also qualified every year since 2011. In other words, strong power five basketball programs are all but immune to NCAA violations.

But wait, what about the University of Louisville?

That was another case entirely. In 2013, the NCAA stripped the University of Louisville men’s basketball team of its 2013 title after the head of basketball operations was found guilty of providing escorts to players and recruits. Aside from the obvious ethical murkiness of that situation, the athletic department provided these individuals with an “illegal benefit,” or a perk that’s only available to athletes. That’s an amateur violation, which threatens the organizational structure of the NCAA, which is why the punishment was so harsh.

I (along with half the state of Kentucky) still don’t agree with the ruling, but it made sense from the NCAA’s vantage point: the Cards were on a performance decline after their last Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2015, so it was safe for the head office to make an example of a flailing program after a three-year drought. The NCAA essentially used U of L to make a statement: Nobody questions the Association’s business model and gets away with it. And at the end of the day, the NCAA is an athletic, not an academic institution, no matter what its PR says.

So that’s my take. The NCAA doesn’t care about academic fraud nearly as much as it cares about its bottom line and if you’re consistently good in March, you’re bulletproof. Lots of people have asked me what the difference is between the University of North Carolina scandal and the current situation at Mississippi State and I offer everyone the same one-word answer: March.

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