NCAA Punishes Missouri in Blatant Academic Fraud Case

Association finds former tutor completed classwork -- and full online courses -- for 12 athletes, but without university's encouragement or detection. Missouri vows to appeal "harsh and inconsistent" decision.

February 1, 2019
 

A former tutor at the University of Missouri at Columbia performed academic work -- including taking three full online courses -- for a dozen athletes, helping to keep many of them eligible to compete, the National Collegiate Athletic Association found Thursday.

The NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions imposed a stinging set of penalties on the university, including a ban on postseason competition in football next season and in baseball and softball this spring and fines of 1 percent of the annual budgets in those sports. Missouri officials blasted the NCAA for what Chancellor Alexander Cartwright called its "harsh and inconsistent" decision, and vowed to appeal them.

The NCAA committee said the penalties could have been worse had the panel concluded that the tutor was acting either at the encouragement or with the knowledge of other university officials, as she asserted was the case.

The former mathematics tutor, Yolanda Kumar, whose November 2016 confession to Missouri administrators brought the case to the university's (and the NCAA's) attention, had asserted that athletics administrators pressured her to make sure her tutees passed, and that supervisors had "approved and rewarded her for her conduct," the NCAA wrote. (Kumar was not identified by name in the NCAA's infractions report, as is the association's custom. But she put herself into public view by taking to social media and, in 2017, offering to share confidential details about the case in exchange for $3,000 so she could pay a university debt and get her transcript from Missouri.)

"But the investigation did not support the allegation that her colleagues directed her to complete the work for the student-athletes," David M. Roberts, special adviser to the president of the University of Southern California and head of the NCAA panel that heard Missouri's case, said during a media call Thursday.

According to the NCAA report's findings, the tutor was told by an athletics department official in 2015 that a male basketball player "needed to pass" an applied statistics course over the summer to graduate. The tutor told the NCAA that she interpreted this interaction to mean that she should do whatever was needed to ensure the athlete's success, and that she "resorted to completing work" on his behalf.

She wound up, over the next 18 months, completing work for six athletes in University of Missouri math courses, including a self-paced online applied statistics course for which she completed and in some cases submitted assignments on the athletes' behalf.

She also helped athletes fulfill some of their university math requirements through online courses offered by other colleges, which the NCAA asserts that "a significant portion of the [Missouri] student population" does because "Missouri's math courses are historically difficult." (A university spokesman did not respond to requests for information about how commonly that actually happens.) The tutor completed course work for four athletes enrolled in an algebra class at a "local non-NCAA institution" that the report does not identify. Two other athletes took an online algebra course offered by Adams State University, in Colorado.

The NCAA concluded that the tutor had also helped two athletes score high enough on Missouri's (unproctored) math placement exam to place out of remedial math. They ended up playing for Missouri before ultimately being found guilty of cheating under the university's honor code.

As is true for just about every college sports case involving academic wrongdoing that has unfolded in the last few years, the NCAA's response to the Missouri situation brought repeated comparisons to the association's handling of the long-term academic wrongdoing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which evaded NCAA penalties in 2017 in part because the university aggressively fought the charges and in part because the wrongdoing didn't technically violate the association's rules because the academic fraud also benefited hundreds of students who were not athletes.

Many commentators (especially sports columnists from nearby cities) struggled to reconcile UNC's escape from penalties with the harsh penalties imposed on Missouri (including fines of more than 1 percent of the annual budgets of the football, baseball and softball programs) for the actions of what many characterized as a "rogue" tutor.

"As it turns out, honesty isn’t always the best policy," The Athletic said.

There is something to that critique, as the infractions panel indirectly acknowledges in its public report. Explaining why the Missouri and North Carolina cases are "distinguishable," the committee said that "UNC stood by the courses and the grades it awarded student-athletes," asserting that "although courses were created and graded by an office secretary, student-athletes completed their own work." In the Missouri case, by contrast, the university "acknowledged that the tutor completed student-athletes' work and, in most instances, this conduct violated its honor code."

While the infractions panel praised Missouri for its cooperation, and generally found its officials not to be culpable, the NCAA did not hold it blameless. "In the [committee's] past academic cases, [it] has consistently held both the institution and the institutional employee who engaged in the unethical conduct accountable for their actions," the panel's report said.

The potential penalties against Missouri were actually mitigated, the NCAA committee said, by the fact that the university disclosed the violations to the NCAA as soon as it learned of them. But institutions are also responsible for "self-detection" of violations, a responsibility the panel concluded Missouri did not fulfill. "The offending conduct continued for one year. But for the tutor's decision to come forward with her conduct, Missouri would not have known that the tutor was completing student-athletes' academic work," its report stated.

Missouri's explanation was that it has a "robust" program in place for educating its employees and a "culture of compliance" that encouraged the tutor to come forward. "Missouri is correct in that those are examples of well-functioning compliance systems," the panel wrote, but "its application to this case … is a stretch. The record did not demonstrate that Missouri failed to monitor, but it also did not demonstrate that Missouri had systems in place designed for prompt self-detection associated with this mitigating factor (e.g., spot checking metadata on submitted assignments)."

In addition to the postseason bans and monetary fines, Missouri's football, softball and baseball teams face recruiting limitations and the vacation of victories in which the ineligible athletes competed.

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