NCAA naps during golden age of cheating

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Those inside the sport will tell you that cheating never has been so widespread, yet the NCAA hasn't busted a single big-time men's basketball program in nearly two years.

It hasn't nailed a major football program in nearly 15 months.

It's the longest stretch of compliance for the once iron-fisted organization in 46 years and the second longest ever according to an analysis of the NCAA's major infractions database.

Across a landscape of power conferences and power programs, the NCAA hasn't uncovered one booster, one agent, one phony term paper.

An organization that once picked off cheats nonstop – it averaged nearly seven major convictions of big-time programs from 1986 to 2006 – now either is incapable or unwilling to police its money sports.

They did get Middle Tennessee State volleyball. And Texas Southern tennis, of course.

Yet in football and men's basketball, when it comes to major programs (the top six conferences in football, the top nine in basketball) and major violations, enforcement has been emasculated.

Welcome to the golden era of college cheating – no one gets convicted for anything anymore.

In basketball, where even NCAA president Myles Brand acknowledges an epidemic of cheating, there hasn’t been a major infractions decision since Oct. 12, 2006 when Kansas was caught for improprities.

Not since July 11, 2007, when Oklahoma got nabbed for players having no-show jobs, has there been one in major college football.

The NCAA has expanded its staff of investigators (its cops) to an all-time high of 20. It now has its infractions committee (its judge and jury) meet as often as seven times per year. Still, it hasn't been this feeble at catching crooks since a 16-month stretch ending in 1962. Back then, it had one investigator.

"The NCAA and its enforcement staff (are) committed to protecting the integrity of college athletics," spokesperson Stacey Osburn said. "While the information that leads to investigations often occurs in cycles, there are currently a number of open investigations for programs of all sizes – large and small – that illustrate the NCAA's commitment to integrity on and off the field."

Well, there are a lot of small ones. As for the big ones, the NCAA wouldn't provide a list of current investigations. It did encourage a search of media sources.

A LexisNexis inquiry revealed just three major schools under official "letter of inquiry" investigation – Florida State, Indiana and Southern California. Even then, at least two of those cases are expected to result in wrist slaps and secondary violations.

It never has been so obvious the NCAA is protecting its big-time programs and television money.

It's gotten to the point where Jerry Tarkanian's legendary line about the NCAA's selective enforcement habits – "the NCAA was so mad at Kentucky, it gave Cleveland State two more years of probation" – has become outdated.

These days the NCAA doesn't even get mad at Kentucky.

In 2006, Auburn sociology professor Jim Gundlach detailed a case of academic fraud to The New York Times. Athletes, mostly football players, were flocking to a "directed-reading" program run by a professor notorious for handing out A's while requiring little to no class work.

The NCAA once considered academic fraud a most egregious act, one that violated its core principle of educating student-athletes.

"We (had) people who couldn't put together complete sentences going out there saying they had a sociology degree from Auburn University," Gundlach said.

An Auburn investigation found a similar situation in another department. It removed both professors from their chairman positions, rewrote the rules for the directed reading program and set up oversight to prevent future abuses.

Just a few years ago, an aggressive NCAA likely would have pounded Auburn football for violating the intent of the rule. There was no way all those football academic advisers didn't know what was happening.

“We (had) people who couldn’t put together complete sentences going out there saying they had a sociology degree from Auburn University.”

– Jim Gundlach, former sociology professor at Auburn.

This time, the NCAA went by the letter of the law. All those football players taking the easy class were considered a coincidence. Receiving A's while doing no work merely was a secondary violation. The NCAA turned out easier to pass than sociology.

The Associated Press' story summed it up with unintentional comedy:

AUBURN, Ala. – The NCAA has determined that Auburn did not commit academic fraud in allowing (football players) to take courses that required little or no time in the classroom.

"I had this notion that the NCAA did care about athletes being students, too," Gundlach said. "That's a myth. They only care about money. (The enforcement process) is primarily used as PR to maintain the tax-exempt status of big-time college athletics."

For blowing the whistle Gundlach said he was "harassed" within the department and community. It caused him to retire early and after the NCAA's empty decision, he wishes he never tried to take on Auburn football.

"It's just impossible for a single individual (to fight)."

Recently a professor at a different school uncovered similar academic fraud on his campus. He called Gundlach and asked whether he should step forward.

"Unless you're ready to retire," Gundlach told him, "just let it slide."

The majority of NCAA employees, former investigators, former infractions committee members, defense attorneys and athletic directors we spoke with, on the condition of anonymity due to potential backlash, believe this is a stunning turnaround.

What they couldn't agree on was why the NCAA has lost its teeth.

Some say the investigative staff is weak because pay is comparatively low and positions don't attract top-line candidates (the NCAA refused to disclose a salary range). Others cite an organizational disaster where valuable time is wasted on silly cases such as Texas A&M Corpus Christi volleyball or McNeese State cross country (no joke).

Others cite the enforcement staff becoming gun shy. Schools now are willing to hire high-priced legal defense and aggressively fight in the appeals process.

Some say the problem is the infractions committee, which makes the rulings and sets the punishments. Seven of its 10 members are administrators at NCAA schools or conferences. College athletics is a small world. It's easy to have personal ties or professional aspirations at a defendant school. The implication of corruption is enough to cast doubts.

Others think the NCAA always has followed media investigations and isn't good at starting its own cases. Troubles in the newspaper industry have eliminated almost all investigative reporting. Sports Illustrated, once a leader in this regard, essentially has given up. Only ESPN, a few national websites and newspapers still do any investigations.

Still, the NCAA didn't bother pursuing recent media leads on potential violations at big-time programs such as Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

Which leads, of course, to the money.

To slam Auburn with sanctions is to go in the face of the SEC's recent television deals with CBS and ESPN that are worth reportedly more than $3 billion combined.

Whatever it is, the perception is the NCAA in 2008 isn't as aggressive as the NCAA of, say, 2004, when it nailed eight major cases.

While the corruption gets bigger and bigger the number of schools in trouble gets smaller and smaller.

Just this year Brand put three investigators on men's basketball full-time and Osburn said the NCAA is always trying to "use more finely tuned investigative methods."

Whatever the NCAA's explanations, whatever lip service or shuffling of resources, none of it matters unless it truly is committed to honoring its rulebook, no matter the violator.

"The truth is the NCAA cares about its revenue and not how it gets it," Gundlach, the professor, said.

The golden age of college cheating, 440 days and counting.

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