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Fraud and Friction at Florida St.

March 9, 2009

If you were still looking for evidence of the skewed lens through which most Americans (and reporters, for that matter) look at big-time college sports, consider the curious case of Florida State University.

On Friday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that more than 60 athletes at the university had cheated in two online courses over a year and a half long period, one of the most serious cases of academic fraud in the NCAA's recent history.

Yet just about all anyone seemed to be able to talk about -- especially Florida State fans in commenting on the case and news publications in reporting on it -- is how the NCAA's penalties (which include requiring Florida State to vacate an undetermined number of victories in which the cheating athletes competed) might undermine the legacy of the university's football coach, Bobby Bowden. Bowden has one fewer career victory than Pennsylvania State University's longtime coach, Joe Paterno, and if Florida State has to wipe out as many as 14 football wins from 2007 and 2008, it could end Bowden's chance of being the all-time winningest coach in big-time college football.

Florida State officials themselves clearly believe the vacation penalty is unfair and said they would seek "clarification" of the reason for it and, if necessary, "will consider its appellate possibilities."

“We just don’t understand the sanction to vacate all wins in athletics contests in which ineligible student-athletes competed because we did not allow anyone who we knew was ineligible to compete," Florida State's president, T.K. Wetherell, said in a news release. "Our position throughout the inquiry was that as soon as we knew of a problem, they didn’t play.”

In that and other comments about the case, Florida State officials implied that because they had declared the athletes who cheated to be ineligible, it was unfair for the NCAA to impose additional penalties related to the fact that the athletes had competed while ineligible. But NCAA officials suggested in their own statements about the case that such a view betrays a lack of understanding about the association's rules -- and that matters like a coach's legacy don't figure into the deliberations of the NCAA's rules enforcement scheme.

"The committee adjudicates the facts; it's our job to review the facts as they are presented," said Dennis Thomas, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and acting chair of the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions, which ruled in the case. "We give no thought whatsoever to a student-athlete's prominence or a head coach about to break a record. We give no thought to that whatsoever."

What the committee did focus on in the Florida State case was the fact that the situation presented one of the most widespread cases of cheating in the association's history. Three former members of the university's academic support team for athletes were found by a university investigation to have given improper academic assistance of various sorts -- including answers to exams in online courses and help in preparing papers for athletes considered to be learning disabled -- to a total of 61 athletes in 10 sports.

Most of the wrongdoing occurred in an online music course in which exams were not proctored and "the institution acknowledged that the course professor did not have sufficient safeguards in place to prevent students from obtaining exam answers," the Division I Committee on Infractions said in its report on the case, which represented Florida State's seventh major case of rules violations since 1968.

As part of Florida State's own investigation of the case, the university declared 61 athletes ineligible in two groups -- one batch in September 2007 and another in December of that year, around the Seminole football team's participation in the Music City Bowl.

Under NCAA rules, when a college or university believes that its athletes have engaged in rule breaking, it is supposed to declare the players ineligible and, if it wishes, to seek to have them reinstated by an NCAA panel that deals with athletic eligibility issues. In this case, the NCAA struck a deal with Florida State in which the athletes were required to sit out for 30 percent of their respective teams' contests in either 2007-8 or 2008-9.

In their statements about the case, Florida State officials said they believed that that arrangement meant that the NCAA would impose no additional penalties that affected the athletes, either directly or indirectly. "We believe that the NCAA confirmed that our investigative efforts and our self-imposed penalties were appropriate," said Wetherell, Florida State's president.

But the NCAA's athlete reinstatement process and its infractions process deal with entirely different issues, Thomas and an NCAA spokeswoman, Stacy Osburn, said Friday. The reinstatement process punishes individual athletes directly for wrongdoing they commit (in this case, cheating, arguably the most serious of NCAA breaches). The infractions process, in turn, is designed to punish colleges and universities and their officials for rule violations that they either commit or fail to prevent, in Florida State's case because of inadequate monitoring of the athletic tutoring staff.

The two processes, said Osburn, are "completely separate," and the penalties imposed in the athlete reinstatement process do not affect the infractions committee's institutional punishments. In addition to scholarship reductions in all 10 sports whose athletes were involved in the rule breaking, and severely restricting the future ability of the three former Florida State academic support employees to work at NCAA member colleges, the infractions panel imposed its favorite new penalty: requiring the university vacate "all wins in which the 61 student-athletes" competed while ineligible during 2006 and 2007, as well as "the individual records of the student-athletes."

Because some number of football players were among the athletes who cheated, 14 of Florida State's football wins from 2006 and 2007 are at risk of being vacated (the NCAA panel leaves it up to the university to determine how many games were played with ineligible athletes, so that number remains up in the air at this moment). Subtracting those victories from the career total of Bowden, the university's longtime coach, is unfair, many commentators wrote.

"[I]t just doesn't seem fair or right that Bobby Bowden, one of the greatest ambassadors college football has ever known, is being punished more than anyone else in this academic-fraud case. And, worse yet, he's being punished for the malfeasance of others," wrote Mike Bianchi, a sports columnist for The Orlando Sentinel.

The NCAA's explanation is that the involvement of the three employees, and Florida State's acknowledgment that it had failed to monitor the employees, warranted significant penalties affecting the university -- even if, yes, Bowden might be affected by the wrongdoing of employees he did not directly oversee. "Their culpability was especially egregious as they were among the institutional staff members with particular responsibility to maintain academic integrity. ..." the infractions committee said in its report. "The institution evaluated its processes and staff culpability and concluded that it had prime responsibility for the academic fraud."

In an interview Sunday, Lawrence Abele, Florida State's provost, said university officials were concerned about the overlap in the individual and institutional penalties. Requiring the university to vacate an entire track team's performance in meets and tournaments because, as is the case, an athlete who competed in one event cheated, could be seen as "harsh and perhaps unreasonable by many people," especially because "the second we had any idea, any information" about a student's wrongdoing, "we sat the kids," he said.

In addition, Abele said, Florida State arguably went to extraordinary measures to ensure that it uncovered the full depth and breadth of the violations. When a Florida State basketball player first told university officials that a tutor had directed him to fill out a teammate's quiz in an online psychology course, that prompted an initial investigation and questioning of athletes and employees that led to the ineligibility of 21 athletes by September 2007.

Florida State could have left the case at that, Abele said, affecting far fewer athletes on far fewer teams. But at the encouragement of Wetherell, the president, who said the university should "do everything possible to understand what was going on, and if there's problem to fix things," Abele assembled a team of computer experts to conduct a thorough analysis of the patterns of exam taking and grades in the online music course. (As part of the process, Abele and Wetherell both took the exams to help develop a baseline for how long students should have spent on them, he said.)

That analysis identified the other 40 athletes who eventually acknowledged having cheated, and "to have drilled down to the depths that we drilled down" and get punished twice for having done so, Abele said, troubles Florida State officials.

 

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