Documenting it irrefutably is a challenge, and many college sports officials -- when asked if academic fraud is a growing problem -- tend to write off such wrongdoing as the occasional work of "rogue" bad employees, as Florida State University did last year. But evidence of a problem continued to mount Wednesday, with the latest announcement of a sports program punished by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The association's Division I Committee on Infractions placed Georgia Southern University on two years' probation and imposed a set of penalties after concluding that a former men's basketball assistant coach and another former team administrator had done significant course work for two former players. Coming on the heels of similar cases at Florida State, the University of New Mexico, and others, the Georgia Southern case drew an expression of concern from the panel's leader.
"We do see academic issues [arise] more frequently recently, and that's something we're very concerned, because of the nature of these institutions," said Paul Dee, chairman of the Division I infractions panel and a professor of law at the University of Miami.
There is nothing new about academic wrongdoing in college athletics, and serious cases have arisen periodically -- but relatively rarely -- over time. What has changed, and potentially creates a new dynamic, is that the NCAA has greatly raised the stakes for colleges whose athletes perform poorly in the classroom, imposing scholarship reductions and even restricting competition for teams whose players consistently underperform.
While the NCAA's hope and expectation has been that colleges and their sports programs would respond by bringing in better prepared athletes and bolstering academic support to help them earn meaningful degrees -- progress reflected in increasing graduation rates -- others have raised concern that the higher-stakes policies would drive more coaches and colleges to cut corners to keep athletes eligible, by whatever means necessary.
Cases like the one at Georgia Southern certainly stoke the latter set of worries. As laid out in the NCAA infractions committee's report on the case, a former assistant coach (to whom the university had given responsibility for the basketball program's academic performance) did a wide range of course work for two players, and directed the then-director of basketball operations (a highfalutin name for a team manager) to undertake classwork for one of the two athletes. "The former assistant coach submitted or provided [the athlete] with papers, essays ... completed tests ... and participated in online chats ... in several English and criminal justice courses," the NCAA panel found.
"One men's basketball student-athlete reported that many of these online chats occurred during an organized study hall which was often supervised by the former assistant coach," the NCAA noted in its report. "This student-athlete reported observing the former assistant coach 'posing' as [the player] during the required online chats and answering questions.... The investigation also revealed a paper turned in by [an athlete] which originated from a source outside the institution; specifically, the paper was ... written by a teacher at [a local high school] who was acquainted with the former assistant coach."
The former assistant coach, who was fired last March by Georgia Southern, also lied to NCAA investigators when confronted about the allegations last year, the NCAA panel said. (In the former assistant coach's biography on the basketball team's Web page, Georgia Southern said that his "commitment to academic performance helped the team increase its GPA for four consecutive semesters, including spring 2008." As is standard NCAA practice, neither the association nor Georgia Southern named the former assistant.) (Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct an error in an earlier version of the article.)
Georgia Southern officials had argued to the NCAA that "the clandestine methods used by the former assistant coach" had precluded its ability to detect the violations. But the infractions panel concluded that the university's decision to delegate authority for players' academic success to an assistant coach, among other factors, was evidence of its failure to monitor the program adequately.
In accepting the association's findings and penalties, which include cuts in basketball scholarships and recruiting and vacation of all wins in which the two players competed in 2007-8 and 2008-9, Georgia Southern's president, Brooks Keel, said: "I am confident that we have taken the necessary steps to ensure that an incident of this nature does not occur at Georgia Southern again. We accept the decision of the NCAA and are anxious to move forward."