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Another Case of Academic Fraud Involving Athletes

August 21, 2008

For the fourth time in a little over a year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I Committee on Infractions has punished a big-time sports program for academic wrongdoing. And in punishing the University of New Mexico for engaging in academic fraud on Wednesday, the NCAA panel linked the shenanigans back to a single source, much to the dismay of the institution singled out.

In its report on the case, the NCAA infractions panel found that two since-fired assistant football coaches at New Mexico, operating without the knowledge of officials at the university, had arranged in 2004 for one then-football player and three prospective players to take correspondence courses from an unidentified instructor they knew at another institution. According to the NCAA, the athlete who was already enrolled at New Mexico actually completed the work in the correspondence course, but the situation still violated NCAA rules against "extra benefits" -- over and above those available to the typical student -- because the former coaches arranged for him to take the course.

But the coaches also arranged for three community college athletes they were trying to recruit to New Mexico to enroll in correspondence courses with the same instructor, and the NCAA found that all three had received passing grades without doing any work at all (or even receiving the course materials, for that matter). None of the three athletes wound up enrolling at New Mexico, NCAA and university officials pointed out, but "this is academic fraud, regardless of whether the courses were subsequently used for admission or athletics eligibility purposes," the NCAA panel said in its report on the case.

The findings had serious implications for New Mexico -- which faces the loss of five football scholarships a year and various other recruiting restrictions through 2011 -- and for the two former coaches, who go unnamed in the NCAA report but face severe restrictions on their duties at the colleges at which they now coach, which the NCAA also declines to identify, as is its custom. (The Associated Press, however, identified the former coaches as Lenny Rodriguez, now an assistant at Mount San Antonio College, in California, and Grady Stretz, an assistant at Arizona State University. The NCAA panel directed any member institution that employs the coaches to appear before it to explain why the penalties imposed because of what they did at New Mexico should not apply in their current jobs. Mount San Antonio, a two-year college, would not be subject to that edict, but Arizona State would. A lawyer for Stretz told Arizona's East Valley Tribune that additional information would exonerate the coach.)

Perhaps the biggest hit of all in the NCAA's infractions report is saved for another party: Fresno Pacific University. In its report on the case and the news release that describes the infractions committee's actions against New Mexico, the panel notes that the correspondence courses in question were given in the name of Fresno Pacific, a private four-year college in California.

Not only that, the NCAA committee says, but correspondence courses from the university were also involved in major rulebreaking cases involving California State University at Long Beach and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette; in the former case, coaches forged the name of a proctor on a correspondence exam, the NCAA found, and in the latter, Lafayette officials improperly used grades in correspondence courses to keep athletes eligible to participate.

The fact that Fresno Pacific had cropped up in three major infractions cases led the NCAA panel to warn: "[A]ll institutions are cautioned by the committee that due diligence must be exercised prior to accepting courses from Fresno Pacific for academic credit and athletics eligibility purposes."

"This is the third time that the committee has seen coursework from Fresno Pacific that has resulted in major infractions at an NCAA university," Josephine R. Potuto, a University of Nebraska law professor who heads the infractions panel, said during a telephone news conference about the New Mexico case Wednesday. "That is as rare as the fact that it was noted in the report," she said, responding to a reporter's question about whether it was unusual for the NCAA to single out an institution like Fresno Pacific for disapprobation.

Fresno Pacific officials were not thrilled by their moment in the spotlight. Diana Bates Mock, the university's executive director of university communications, said that the correspondence courses in question had been taught not by an employee, but by a contractor in the university's continuing education division. Fresno Pacific, Mock said, had let the instructor's contract expire "as soon as the NCAA started asking questions" about her behavior.

She noted that all of the university's materials about the courses in questions make clear that the classes are designed to be professional or continuing education for teachers, not for college credit. "I'm outraged and appalled to think that somebody used our good name to do something like this," Mock said.

Neither the NCAA, New Mexico, nor Fresno Pacific identified the instructor in question on Wednesday. But the "notice of allegations" that the NCAA's enforcement staff sent to New Mexico officials last September, on which The Albuquerque Journal reported, identified the instructor as Fern Zahlen, a lecturer in the department of teacher education at Cal State Long Beach. Zahlen, who was reached in her office at Long Beach on Wednesday, reacted angrily to the suggestion that she had done anything wrong. "Any person that took any class from me did work," said Zahlen. "If I didn't get work back [from a student], they didn't get credit."

Zahlen acknowledged the possibility that the coaches rather than the athletes completed the assignments -- "I have no proof that they didn't have somebody else do it," she said of the coursework -- but it is wrong to suggest that she improperly gave academic credit for work that was not done. "It is all false, and I am so angry with the NCAA. All they're trying to do is cause problems for people."

Mock of Fresno Pacific demurred when asked if the university was troubled by the NCAA's broad admonition that its member colleges should be wary of coursework transferred from Fresno Pacific. But "it is a little surprising, since we cooperated completely. I imagine they may be hearing from our president."

 

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