More than 3,100 students took part in fake classes that awarded high grades for little work according to the most recent revelations surrounding the African and Afro-American Studies Department at the University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill.
A report by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein was published this week, noting that while UNC's sham classes ended in 2011, they operated for years due to a complete lack of institutional control.
Teachers, faculty leaders and staff ignored or missed signs that things were amiss in the program that gave athletes and other students high grades in classes with no attendance requirements and a single paper assignment for course credit.
A large majority of the students in the sham department — which has since been shuttered by the university — were athletes. The report outlines clear involvement from athletic advisers, who steered players into the easy classes, in part to help them remain eligible under the NCAA's academic guidelines.
How long, exactly, did these faux operations occur right beneath the university and NCAA's noses? From 1993 to 2011.
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College sport's governing body recently reopened its investigation into UNC's alleged academic mischief, after having already sanctioned the Tar Heels in previous years.
Wainstein's eight-month investigation, which was ordered by the school amidst intense public pressure, adds new information to the equation. Can the NCAA stand by its previous, relatively-light sanctions, in the face of what could possibly be the biggest cheating scandal in sporting history?
In 1999, Minnesota was accused of completing more than 400 assignments for at least 20 Golden Gopher basketball players. A nine-month investigation led to the NCAA levying a bevy of sanctions against Minnesota, including banning it from postseason play for four years and stripping it of all awards and records back to the 1993-94 season.
But the Golden Gophers' transgressions seem light compared to what investigators could be looking at with the Tarheels. After all, North Carolina's transgressions last 18 years, span thousands of athletes and students, and involve direct cheating in the form of classes specifically made to help keep athletes eligible.
It's not an exaggeration to say that the infamous Death Penalty could be at play here for one of college basketball's most famed programs.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges is responsible for deciding whether schools in their region remain academically accredited, meaning that the school meets basic standards for providing a proper education.
In most cases, it would be unheard of for an elite public school like UNC to lose its accreditation. However, the commission has placed the school on a watch list and requires degree-granting universities to be in control over "all aspects of its educational program," which could raise red flags considering the large scope of the sham classes.
Regardless of what punishments come to UNC, it's fair to assume that some will come.
The only question is whether they have the type of debilitating effect of a Penn State-sized scandal or if they somehow balloon into something even worse.
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