'Friendly Faculty': the Quiet Danger to Athletics Programs

May 27, 2014

In the nine years I spent on the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions, among the most difficult cases to decide were those involving academic misconduct. There were some easy ones, like when college staff members made a completely indefensible admissions decision, or when athletics-department employees completed coursework and took tests for students, or when coaches taught a course with multiple-choice exam questions asking how many points were in a three-point shot. But more than a few cases were close and hard to decide.

Academic misconduct may result in punitive action from the NCAA but often does not. But even if the NCAA decides to do nothing—usually under the notion that the institution should police itself on matters of academic integrity—the reputational damage to the college can be devastating. A cloud may hang over the campus for a long time, and the financial costs involved in the investigation may be extreme.

When I was on the committee, we would often get the message from the NCAA president’s office, claiming to be expressing the opinions of college presidents, that we weren’t being tough enough with our findings and penalties. Yet when presidents and their institutions appeared in a hearing, they would usually plead for an exception and often throw up "academic freedom" as a defense. In several cases, colleges with stellar and longstanding academic reputations argued academic freedom when it was clear that they had not just bent their admissions and retention standards but had clearly broken them.

Are athletics departments and their employees chipping away at the foundation of academic integrity? Sometimes they are, but sometimes it is a faculty member who makes a silly, indefensible move to aid an athlete.

Many years ago, after a men’s-basketball scandal involving academic fraud, Sports Illustrated included a feature on what were described as "friendly faculty." It was not a flattering piece. Based on my service on the Committee on Infractions and as a faculty athletics rep, I think every campus has faculty members who are cheap dates when it comes to academic matters related to athletes.

That could be partly because faculty members watch the prominence of athletes on campus and get a steady stream of reports on how athletics success provides a "brand" for the college. A faculty member who may consider granting a favor or making an exception for a student-athlete may be right in thinking that there is no academic fraud involved but have no understanding that the action may be defined as an impermissible extra benefit under NCAA rules.

Because there are so many ways that athletics academic misconduct can happen, it is important that college leaders do everything they can to prevent wrongdoing on their campuses. Here are some suggestions:

  • Have a written academic-misconduct policy that includes procedures for adjudication; apply standards, policies, and procedures consistently for all students, including student-athletes; and investigate all assertions of academic misconduct in accordance with established policies and procedures.
  • Enforce a clear, written policy regarding contacts among athletics departments, staff members, and admissions-office staff members. Your admissions policy and corresponding data for special admits may become the subject of scrutiny.
  • Enforce a clear, written policy regarding communications between coaches and instructors. Make it known to coaches, instructors, and student-athletes.
  • Involve the faculty athletics representative in all matters relating to academic integrity with a connection to athletics. The Committee on Infractions expects that involvement. However, expand the circle of involvement to include faculty members in the examination of admissions and retention policies as well as academic-misconduct inquiries relating to athletes.
  • Revisit your manuals that define rules and policies for the delivery of tutorial and other academic-support services. Enforce the rules. Manuals should address relevant NCAA rules; standards for hiring, evaluation, and dismissal of tutors; the institution’s code of conduct for students; and other matters that have an effect on the delivery of academic support for athletes.
  • Don’t stop your inquiry until everyone involved is satisfied that all due diligence has occurred, even if the NCAA has decided against bringing allegations of academic misconduct. Document the process.
  • Put an end to any courses and independent studies that have brought your institution to the brink of a major infractions case.
  • Examine classes with a high percentage of student-athletes, which could be a sign of priority registration or steering. If there is academic misconduct in a class, some enrollment by nonathletes will not necessarily end the inquiry by the NCAA.

More than a few highly placed college officials, including lawyers, have lost their positions over an athletic-academic-misconduct matter, even if the institution’s resolution with the NCAA concluded favorably. The judgment of the public and the college community is often more harsh than the NCAA’s when it comes to academic misconduct.

Aggressive oversight is essential to protect the integrity of the institution, and this is an area in which presidents, provosts, and faculty members should lead.

Gene A. Marsh is a lawyer at Jackson Lewis, a law firm in Birmingham, Ala., and a former chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions.