'The Bare Minimum'

In wake of academic fraud case, Syracuse backs coach, gives A.D. a top administrative job and appeals harshest N.C.A.A. penalties. Is it taking the case seriously enough?

March 27, 2015
Kent Syverud, Syracuse's chancellor

When Syracuse University last week announced the resignation of its athletics director and impending retirement of its revered basketball coach, the university's supporters and even some of its critics said the moves showed the university was finally owning up to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's allegations that Syracuse failed to properly monitor its basketball program for over a decade, leading to academic fraud, improper payment to athletes by a booster and failure to follow its own drug testing policies.

But some faculty members and critics of big-time college sports aren't convinced the university is sufficiently punishing those who share the blame for the fraud.

"It doesn’t look like they’re doing much of anything,” said Allen Sack, a business professor at the University of New Haven and the former president of the Drake Group, an organization pushing for more emphasis on academics in college sports. “Or they’re doing the bare minimum, just doing what you have to do to kind of imitate a semblance of trying to do something.”

The university did say that it accepts many of the N.C.A.A.’s findings, especially those relating to academic fraud, but it is appealing two of the most serious penalties: the vacating of more than 100 men’s basketball wins and the reduction of 12 basketball scholarships. "The decision to appeal is not taken lightly," Kent Syverud, the university's chancellor, stated. "However, based on the facts and a review of previous N.C.A.A. infractions decisions, the university believes the impact of these specific penalties is excessive and disproportionate.”

Daryl Gross, who has been the university's athletics director for a decade and helped lead Syracuse's transition from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference, did resign, but he will remain with the university as Syverud's vice president and assistant and as an adjunct professor of sport and human dynamics.

And Jim Boeheim will retire after four decades as head men's basketball coach, but not for as many as three years. In a news conference last week, Boeheim said he was retiring on his own terms, after the length of the N.C.A.A. investigation prevented him from retiring earlier. The university and its chancellor have remained firmly on Boeheim’s side, repeatedly expressing that he was not responsible for the actions of his staff.

According to the N.C.A.A.'s infractions report, the academic fraud began in 2005, when Boeheim hired a new director of basketball operations and gave him an imperative: “fix” the academic problems of his athletes.

The solution was for the director and a basketball facility receptionist to access and monitor the email accounts of several players, communicate directly with faculty members as if they were the athletes themselves and then complete course work for them. In one case, an athlete had his eligibility restored by turning in a paper to raise a grade he had earned the previous year. The paper was written by the director and the receptionist.

This sort of fraud lasted more than half a decade at Syracuse, finally coming to light after a lengthy series of investigations by the university and the N.C.A.A. Earlier this month, the N.C.A.A. announced a number of sanctions against Syracuse, including vacating more than 100 of Boeheim’s wins and suspending him for 9 conference games next season.  

The N.C.A.A. also placed Syracuse on 5 years’ probation, fined the university $500 for every contest played by the ineligible students, reduced the basketball program’s number of scholarships by 12 and demanded that the university return the funds it received for appearances in three years of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, which would amount to at least $1 million. "Over the course of a decade, Syracuse University did not control and monitor its athletics programs," the N.C.A.A. said in a statement. "And its head men's basketball coach failed to monitor his program."

While the university was criticized for doing little after the report’s release, Syracuse did take a number of steps to address issues raised by the investigation while it was underway. Administrators had plenty of time to do so -- the investigation lasted for eight years.

The director of basketball operations accused of the academic fraud resigned, and the university fired the basketball receptionist. In 2012, Syracuse more than doubled its academic support staff, and in 2013, academic support services began reporting to the university’s provost, rather than to the athletics department. The university now requires weekly compliance meetings with coaches, athletes and athletics administrators.

The director of student-athlete support services, who was suspicious of the fraud but said nothing, was moved out of the athletics department and into a different position. He later told N.C.A.A. investigators that he was afraid he would lose his job if he spoke up. At a meeting last week, Syracuse officials told faculty members that they have no reason to be scared of the basketball team or its influence.

Faculty members interviewed for this article said they couldn’t recall being directly intimidated by the athletic department or by a member of the basketball program's staff, but they said rumors persist through a gossipy game of telephone: a faculty member heard from another faculty member who was told by an employee in the provost’s office that Coach Boeheim said to make an academic problem “go away.”

Samuel Gorovitz, a philosophy professor and former dean of arts and sciences at Syracuse, has heard those kinds of rumors, too. Gorovitz said he has never been approached by anyone from Syracuse teams about an athlete in his courses.

That’s not always a positive, he said, recalling a time when one of his students, a basketball player, rarely came to class. The score earned by the student on his final exam, Gorovitz said, “was lower than his average points per game.” The athlete failed the course.

“There was no effort to get me to revisit his grade,” Gorovitz said. “But neither had there been any effort that was visible to me to see whether he was even showing up in class. The culture of compliance that I would like to see develop is not just in regards to N.C.A.A. rules, but a culture of compliance with educational values.”

Gorovitz said faculty members may be somewhat patient on that point, as many believe Syverud, who became chancellor in January 2014, inherited the problems highlighted in the N.C.A.A. report. There's an understanding that it may take time to change a culture, especially one that is so reflective of big-time college athletics on the whole.

Where Syverud may not find as much faculty support, however, is the university’s bullish support of Boeheim and Gross’s continued employment.

“There is of course quite a bit of controversy on campus about the appropriateness of this support for Boeheim, but it must also be said that the chancellor is engaged in a balancing act,” Gorovitz said. “Boeheim has quasi deity standing in central New York. The chancellor also has to deal with the Board of Trustees, and some trustees are very strong supporters of the athletic program and have been supporters, in particular, of Boeheim and Daryl Gross. But you bet there’s controversy about Gross having a position so close to the chancellor’s ear.”

Gross, according to the N.C.A.A.’s report, was one of several Syracuse employees who frantically attempted to get the grade of a star basketball player changed in time to restore his eligibility for a big game. While the option to appeal and change a final grade is open to all students, the N.C.A.A. expressed concern with how involved a number of athletics officials were in the process.  

Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse and the university's faculty athletics representative to the N.C.A.A., defended the decision to keep Gross on campus and his new role as an adjunct professor.

“I don’t have any problem with that,” Burton said. “He’s been a practitioner of sports management at a high level, he has a Ph.D. He would know N.C.A.A. matters better than almost anybody. As a potential peer, I welcome him.”

College coaches and other senior athletics officials making it through an academic scandal relatively unscathed is not novel. The N.C.A.A.’s official view is that a coach is ultimately responsible for his staff and his athletes, but colleges -- and college sports fans -- don’t always see it that way.

When Kenneth Wainstein, a former official with the U.S. Department of Justice, released a report in October detailing the widespread academic fraud that allowed 1,500 athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to take phony courses for two decades, he named a number of responsible employees. Those still employed with the university were promptly fired.

No coaches made the list.

“That’s because they’re like God almighty,” Sack said. “They’ve transcended humanness in the public mind. A coach isn’t just the symbol of that tremendously powerful athletic structure. They represent Joe Citizen, too, the fan in the bar jumping up and down yelling ‘we won.’ College athletics have become so important in people’s lives. They’re the emotional contact point with the state university. And at the very core of that is the hero coach. The field general, leading them to victory. They become almost untouchable.”


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