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FENNO: NCAA silence on North Carolina academic scandal speaks volumes

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

These days, the scandals and missteps and outbreaks of forehead-slapping hypocrisy ripping through the upside-down world of college athletics are frequent enough to provide an NCAA-sized headache.

Gordon Gee, the soon-to-be-former Ohio State president, insulted Catholics, the SEC and pretty much everything short of his Mormon faith and beloved Buckeyes during a meeting with the university's athletic council.

Rutgers managed to not just botch the slam-dunk firing of verbally abusive basketball coach Mike Rice, but make things exponentially worse at each sordid turn, including hiring a new athletic director, Julie Hermann, with her own history of questionable conduct toward athletes.

Miami football player Dyron Dye filed a police report accusing NCAA investigators of coercing him into incriminating the university's football program, further muddling a circus-like process that would shame Inspector Clouseau.

And there are the words from NCAA president Mark Emmert's own, well-compensated, student-athlete-spouting mouth 11 months ago:

"One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become 'too big to fail,' or even too big to challenge. The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at all costs. All involved in intercollegiate athletics must be watchful that programs and individuals do not overwhelm the values of higher education."

Remember that? Emmert had just finished turning Penn State's football program into a smoking crater. Never mind that the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal didn't violate a specific NCAA bylaw. The president bypassed the usual enforcement process, imposed unprecedented sanctions and ushered us into the era of the Emmert Doctrine.

That's useful to remember when looking at the NCAA's nonaction in the sprawling academic scandal festering at North Carolina. The years-old problem isn't new. Athletes were steered to no-show classes and independent studies in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, among the laundry list of academic chicanery. Sixty-seven percent of students enrolled in 54 no-show classes were athletes, according to The News & Observer. Some classes didn't exist. Grades were changed.

Over the weekend, the Raleigh newspaper revealed a series of emails between former department Chairman Julius Nyang'oro and the university's group that tutored athletes. The notes showed a close relationship — Nyang'oro was offered everything from football tickets to the opportunity to watch games from the sideline — that helped guide athletes through the path of least academic resistance.

Eligibility, the holy grail of college athletics after the largesse of big-money donors, rules the day.

One lengthy exchange described an academic adviser for athletes negotiating with Nyang'oro to create a no-show class that required only a paper at term's end.

Another note from a different staffer read: "I hear you are doing me a big favor this semester and that I should be bringing you lots of gifts and cash???????"'

The stench of academic fraud covers this mess.

But where is Emmert? That the scandal is academic and not athletic is irrelevant. The president has already shown a devil-may-care willingness to disregard tradition and intervene at Penn State. There's no comparison, of course, between a pedophile preying on young boys and the academic mess. But Emmert's own words, his own made-up doctrine used to justify punishing Penn State for its handling of Sandusky's off-field depravity necessitates involvement at North Carolina.

Listen to the president: "Our constitution and bylaws make it perfectly clear that the association exists not simply to promote fair play on the field, but to insist that athletics programs provide positive moral models for our students, enhance the integrity of higher education and promote the values of civility, honesty and responsibility. The sanctions we are imposing are based upon these most fundamental principles of the NCAA."

He was talking about Penn State. That could easily be North Carolina. There aren't excuses.

Over and over, Emmert pounds the academic primacy of college athletics. Repeating "student-athlete" like some sort of incantation doesn't make it reality. Not when the NCAA's entire structure is built on the fallacy of amateurism, the unpaid labor that generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year, free of pesky salaries and workers' compensation. Take the student away from the athlete and the NCAA is left with a workforce — yes, actual employees — that it can't use verbal gymnastics to avoid paying.

In Emmert's biography on the NCAA's website, after swearing athletes will never be paid under his watch, the president adds, "we're providing athletes with world class educations and world class opportunities."

Does what went on at North Carolina sound "world class"?

How much value is the student portion of student-athlete when the athletes are shuffled through a maze designed to keep them eligible, not prepare them for a productive career after athletics?

If the lofty-sounding, ear-tickling, salary-dodging ideas about student-athletes are something more than a hypocritical gimmick to keep the money flowing, Emmert's NCAA will act on North Carolina. The president's words demand it. Doing nothing would be the real scandal.

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