When critics fret about academic shenanigans in big-time college sports, defenders of the industry typically blame the behavior on a "few bad apples." Tuesday offered more evidence that academic misconduct may not be quite the isolated incident that NCAA partisans would suggest, and that the emergence of distance education provides a new playground for such misbehavior.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I Committee on Infractions concluded  Tuesday that two former coaches and a former academic adviser at Nicholls State University had engaged in "gross academic fraud" by helping 28 athletes and one recruit cheat their way through online correspondence courses at Brigham Young University so they could remain eligible to compete.
The committee also warned that the case at Nicholls State, a public institution in Thibodaux, La., "illustrates the ease with which individuals can manipulate and then breach security protocols for online correspondence courses."
The Nicholls State situation unfolded, if not quite innocently, far from systematically. In 2002, a female volleyball player, on her own, took a distance course at Brigham Young to finish her associate degree and help her transfer to Nicholls State; another Nicholls volleyball player took such a course the following spring. (Although those two athletes did not get illicit help in passing the courses, Nicholls State still broke NCAA rules in their cases because NCAA colleges are not allowed to count correspondence courses from another institution in determining athletes' eligibility.)
In August 2003, two Nicholls State football players failed summer school courses, leaving them without enough credits to be eligible to play that fall. So an academic adviser for the athletics department, having learned about the BYU correspondence courses from the volleyball coach, enrolled the two football players in an online sports psychology course at BYU, and the adviser and an assistant football coach proceeded to give the players answers to the assignments and exams in the course.
The following spring and summer, two dozen more football and basketball players enrolled in BYU online courses and got similar illicit help from the academic adviser, the assistant football coach or the head men's basketball coach. "The academic fraud involved providing answers to lesson assignments and exams; falsifying academic documents," and listing as course proctors people who had no business serving in such a role," the infractions panel said in its report.
"There appeared generally not to be sufficient monitoring either by BYU or in particular by Nicholls State with regard to whether the proctors were doing what they were supposed to do," Josephine Potuto, the infractions panel's vice chair, said during a telephone news conference Tuesday.
In August 2004, the university's registrar, while processing course grades from BYU, "noticed that a large number of student-athletes were enrolled in these courses and that they consistently were receiving grades that were significantly higher than those earned at the university, even in courses they previously had failed at the university or university courses that were the same as, or prerequisite for, the BYU courses."
The registrar's finding prompted Nicholls State to investigate, and during the course of its review, the university concluded that the coaches had also urged athletes to lie about the courses. Within two days of the start of the inquiry, the assistant football coach resigned. (The academic adviser, who had resigned the previous May, admitted to some wrongdoing.) And last October, five days after denying any role in the fraud, the head basketball coach resigned.
The infractions committee credited the registrar with uncovering the fraud and applauded Nicholls State for promptly and thoroughly investigating at that point, and for acting aggressively to clean up the mess. Besides getting rid of those employees directly involved in the academic fraud, the university self-imposed a slew of penalties, including forgoing any revenue from the Southland Conference's football and basketball television packages next year, cutting scholarships and restricting its recruiting efforts in football and basketball, and forfeiting games in which the athletes who cheated had participated.
“The university has fully cooperated with the NCAA in this investigation from the moment Nicholls initiated the review," Nicholls State's president, Stephen T. Hulbert, said in a prepared statement. "My two main objectives, once I learned of the possible violations, were to protect the academic integrity of this institution and, to the extent possible, to protect the student-athletes who were led down the wrong path by three former employees who were guilty of unethical conduct."
The NCAA added a fourth year of probation to the three that the university had imposed on itself, and said it would require the former assistant football coach, basketball coach, and academic adviser -- who it charged with unethical conduct -- to appear before the committee if they seek to work at an NCAA member college in the next eight, six, and five years, respectively.
Generalizing from the Nicholls State situation, the infractions panel said: "This case illustrates the ease with which individuals can manipulate and then breach security protocols for online correspondence courses. In turn, this case underscores the need for supervision and monitoring of these courses, including registration for and selection of courses, identification and conduct of proctors, and exclusion of coaches from involvement."
Although the panel focused most of the blame on Nicholls State, Potuto, a law professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, said at the news conference that distance education providers like BYU can't be totally excused. "With regard to online courses, on both ends there needs to be more controls put in place to assure that somebody who wants to cheat can't do it readily."
Carri Jenkins, assistant to the president for communications at BYU, said the university reviewed its policies once it found out about the abuses at Nicholls State and found that they had been followed. But it also changed its procedures to ensure that no coach could proctor exams in correspondence courses, Jenkins said.
Of the 15 cases that the Division I Committee on Infractions has ruled on since January 2004, Nicholls State is the fifth that involves some kind of academic wrongdoing by coaches or other college officials. In the others:
- The then-president of Gardner-Webb ordered an athlete's grade changed to keep him eligible to play.
- A basketball coach tried to arrange for a player to receive academic credit for courses he never took.
- At the insistence of its president, St. Bonaventure University admitted a transferring basketball player who did not meet NCAA or university standards because he had a certificate in welding rather than an associate degree.
- The University of Georgia gave A's in a basketball coaching class (taught by an assistant coach) to three basketball players who never attended the course.