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News & Record (Greensboro, North Carolina)

 

CHAPEL HILL — David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University, has dedicated his career to advocating for and studying academic integrity in college athletics, going so far as testifying in front of Congress and serving as an expert witness.

But when the NCAA cleared UNC of wrongdoing on Friday morning, his reaction wasn't one entirely of disappointment the school escaped without punishment.

"I think it's really tough to defend the amateur model, the collegiate model today," Ridpath said. "I think that maybe, where this was talked about as maybe a chance for the NCAA to reassert control over college athletics, maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Maybe we can get away from continuing to do something that isn't working."

The indictment came down long ago, the NCAA alleging several bad actors in UNC's department of African and Afro-American Studies set up a shadow curriculum, designed with the goal of keeping student-athletes eligible with no-show classes and loose grading from a rogue secretary, Deborah Crowder.

Five Level 1 charges in all, including an allegation of lack of institutional control, which has devastated athletics programs from Miami to SMU.

And UNC beat 'em all, save for token punishments to Crowder and Julius Nyang'oro, the former head of the AFAM department.

Now, the indictment has been flipped onto the NCAA and there's an overwhelming amount of evidence to support the case.

Ultimately, UNC got off on a technicality, telling the NCAA it had no business meddling in its academic affairs, and based on the organization's rules, that's true.

"I think that the NCAA was uncomfortable lowering the boom when they couldn't point to an identifiable violation of a specific bylaw that would justify it," said Nellie Drew, a professor of sports law at the University of Buffalo. "UNC was rattling their sabers; they made it very clear that if they got hit with significant sanctions, they were going to court on it. This would be a tough one to defend, because the NCAA is not a state actor; they're subject to private association law."

As a private association, Drew explained, the NCAA is free to institute and incorporate its own laws. The problem here, she said, was that the NCAA had no specific language in its rulebook governing the quality or vigor of academic courses.

Though the NCAA's case against Penn State concerned far more serious subject-matter regarding sexual assaults involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, it did set a precedent when the organization levied serious sanctions against the school, although no specific rules existed regarding the misconduct.

In private association law, Drew said, one of three ways for an organization to be defeated in court is when it doesn't follow its own rules.

"My guess is that they were afraid of the last one, because there's no bright-line rule here that you can point to here and say, 'Oh, UNC broke that rule,'" Drew said.

The implications of the decision could have far-reaching effects throughout college athletics, given that the NCAA's main reasoning for not pursuing sanctions against UNC is that the irregular courses were available to non-athletes, with student-athletes making up just 47 percent of enrollments.

That could open the door for other programs to challenge how the NCAA enforces its rules regarding eligibility. The precedent now exists that, hypothetically, a school could certainly get away with setting up a similar arrangement with a few athletes mixed among non-athletes in order to preserve eligibility.

"This has shown a very clear wedge and openness in the NCAA system of academic eligibility," Ridpath said. "While most everyone knew about it, now it's been clearly advertised and now actually sanctioned as admissible."

Drew agreed that the case sets a unique precedent on that front.

"It leaves the definition of amateurism in the hands of the institutions," she said. "If you're comfortable with having your athletes take classes that have minimal, if any, content as an institution, then that's OK."

And that's fine in Ridpath's mind.

In his estimation, the NCAA has no place legislating initial eligibility, continuing eligibility or transfer eligibility, and schools should have autonomy in terms of admitting and keeping athletes on the roster. Instead, the scrutiny should be pushed inward and let stakeholders in the university determine what they want to be.

"If a school wants to admit who they want and absolutely have no care about the educational primacy for that student," Ridpath said, "and the alums, and the students and the donors and the state government and taxpayers are fine with that, I say so be it. At least it's more transparent than what we have now."

Between UNC's relative victory, the ongoing FBI investigation into college basketball and several other amateurism challenges to the NCAA, the time could be right for challengers to arise.

Today's ruling helped solidify to Ridpath that the amateurism model that is sacred to college athletics has little bearing on fan investment.

"We're going to watch the games regardless, whether the athletes are paid, whether they're not, whether they go to class, whether they don't," he said. "We simply do not care, and the few that do care, they can go do something else because the system proved today that it will survive with things like this going on."

There are any number of proposals available for how to alter the NCAA model, like allowing athletes to profit from their likeness, or scrapping it altogether, like the HBCU league that economist Andy Schwarz proposed.

In Schwarz's proposal, at least 16 cash-strapped HBCUs would break away from the NCAA, with the league funding salaries from $50,000 to $100,000 for the nation's top college basketball players to turn their college experiences profitable.

Ridpath called that proposal a "real possibility" and said the landscape is right for others like it to potentially challenge the NCAA's hold.

"I think we need to give athletes other choices for elite development outside of NCAA athletics," he said. "Then perhaps, we can say to ourselves, 'This is how we're going to run it.' And then if an athlete doesn't want to participate in that space, they have other options."

Contact Brant Wilkerson-New at 336-373-7008.

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