Column: Feds might be only hope to clean up college sports

Grey SankeyThe Associated Press
FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2017, file photo, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, head of the NCAA infraction panel handling North Carolina's ongoing academic case, arrives at an NCAA hearing in Nashville, Tenn. Sankey says it's "more likely than not" that UNC athletes received fraudulent credit, but the organization's bylaws leave it to the schools themselves to determine academic fraud. He added that the panel could not use "those strong possibilities" to determine whether violations occurred." (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski, File)

Thank goodness for the FBI.

After North Carolina got off scot-free in its long-running academic fraud scandal , there's no need to give the NCAA any further acknowledgement when it comes to managing the cesspool of college athletes.

The toothless, meaningless organization might as well be run by Sgt. Schultz .

They see nothing.

NOTHING!

At this point, it looks like the only real hope for a classroom cleanup rests with the feds.

Once they started poking around in the world's worst-kept secret — seriously, was anyone surprised by all the shady dealings between shoes companies, basketball coaches and prized athletes? — it took only three years to start locking people up and finally force Rick Pitino into a disgraceful exit.

Compare that with the NCAA, which has been fumbling around with the Tar Heels for more than seven years and finally revealed Friday ... uhh, well, nothing to see here.

Move along, please.

Funny thing: As long as you sprinkle in some regular students with "student-athletes," there's apparently nothing wrong with offering sham courses that don't even require you showing up for class to receive an A.

"While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called 'paper courses' offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes," said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, who headed up the NCAA's kangaroo court.

Sankey said his group was "troubled" by the sordid affair, but went on to make clear: "The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership."

And there you have the root of the problem.

The NCAA operates at the pleasure of its member schools, and they're not about to cook the golden goose that is big-time college athletics. Not when they've managed to turn so many of our institutions of higher learning into lucrative pro sports franchises, only without that pesky detail of having to pay the players (at least not above the table).

Oh sure, they'll get all irate when someone pushes the envelope a little too far.

You know, like Louisville turning a blind eye while its athletic dorm doubled as a brothel (though, stunningly, that wasn't enough to cost Pitino his job at the time).

Or Baylor covering up a rash of alleged sexual assaults on campus by football players , while memories were still fresh of former hoops coach/reprehensible human being Dave Bliss trying to preserve his thoroughly corrupt basketball program by accusing a murdered player of being a drug dealer.

Or SMU setting up an actual payment plan for its football players back in the 1980s, leading to the one and surely only time the NCAA will ever impose the death penalty.

But, for the most part, it's just business as usual for these colleges and universities, which long ago sold their academic soul for billion-dollar television deals, packed stadiums and boosters eager to write out big checks.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a school that isn't cutting corners in some way to ensure its best players stay eligible. For some, it's the thoroughly accepted method known as "clustering," in which an inordinate number of players tend to wind up in a same field of study, usually because the classes are easier and less time-consuming.

At Georgia Tech, for instance, 66 of the football team's 112 players — nearly 59 percent — list their major as business administration. Only 29 are in one of the various engineering programs, even though the school's famous fight song proclaims "I'm a heck of an engineer."

From clustering, some schools graduate to the murkier methods for ensuring that athletes do enough in the classroom to stay on the field — oftentimes, without the burden of having to go to an actual classroom. This is roughly where we place North Carolina's shenanigans, though the Tar Heels are hardly alone.

The Tar Heels' defense, with some justification, pointed to similar-sounding cases at Auburn and Michigan, where media reports detailed independent studies programs that were overflowing with athletes and generally delivered high grades, helping to ensure eligibility. The NCAA took no action against those schools.

For the most part, the NCAA's members are content to leave the foxes in charge of the henhouses when it comes to academic malfeasance, which basically leaves everyone to make up their own rules. The only restriction seems to be: Don't go TOO far to keep this money machine running.

Like that time Georgia offered a class in Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball , taught by assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr. and featuring the epic question: "How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?" (Hey, it was a multi-choice test, so 1, 2 and 4 were also options).

That cost Harrick and his dad, who was the head coach, their jobs.

They were the exceptions, hardly the rule.

After Friday's decision, we can only hope there's a way for the feds to take a look at what's going on in the classroom, even while they're still busy dealing with Shoegate and other important issues, like organized crime and foreign powers meddling in our elections.

That's really the only hope.

The NCAA and those who enable it aren't going to change.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

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