David Glenn: The UNC ‘copycat theory’ doesn’t hold up

A popular question was recently sent in to the David Glenn Show, asking: if UNC was able to avoid punishment with their academic scandal, why shouldn’t we expect other NCAA programs to replicate these courses?

David Glenn has a two part answer on why that won’t happen. Click below to hear his answer or view the full transcript below.


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Audio Transcript

I’m sure I’ll have to elaborate on this, but my bottom line answer to the question, and it’s a good one: if the Tar Heels got away with murder, and the NCAA shrugged its shoulders and said, it’s a weird, narrow set of circumstances. It’s not a great fit for our by-laws, even though it stunk to high heaven, what they did in the AFAM department, and even though some significant percentage of those who took those classes were athletes. And even though they stayed eligible by getting those easy grades in that paper-only class that in many cases was described as a regularly meeting lecture class, but was executed instead as a “just hand in a paper at the end of the semester” class. All of that. We all know how disgraceful that was to the University of North Carolina.

It is a valid question to ask: Will there be a copycat factor here? If elsewhere in college sports they saw what the Tar Heels did, they saw the Tar Heels get away with it over a couple of decades and benefit from it, what about the copycat factor? There’s a two part answer. One relates to incredibly easy classes, or easy chairpeople, or easy professors, or easy majors, etc. The other relates to truly bogus, dysfunctional, and what many people at cocktail parties call academic fraud type classes. Even though the NCAA has a different definition of that.

Motive for easy classes remains the same

Part number one, and I can be crystal clear about part number one. There is the same exact motive today and moving forward for easy classes, manageable majors, favorable professors and related matters as there was last Thursday, a month ago, a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago and fifty years ago. It is the exact same motive. If you are describing truly easy classes, again, put the fraud and the bogus and the anomalous off to the side. That’s part two. It has never been against NCAA rules. It wasn’t against the rules when your grandparents were little, not when your grandchildren will be little. It has never been against NCAA rules to have, or even to steer athletes toward easy classes. Athlete-friendly majors, athlete-friendly professors and chairpeople. None of that has ever been against the rules, it never will be against the rules, and the motivations are the same as they were a hundred years ago or a hundred years from now.

Now you could say the pursuit of bigger dollars has changed, and you’d be right. But in terms of running an athletic department, easy classes, easy majors, less stressful schedules and classroom work, that has been a part of this stuff forever, it’s only a matter of degree. Just as universities must decide how far down a certain road they’ll go when it comes to signing prospects out of high school. At my mythical Podunk State University, if producer Daron is my football coach, I might tell him he has 25 scholarships open roughly most years, he can sign 25 guys who barely have the 2.5 GPA in their core courses and barely have the 800 or whatever they need on their SAT. Other schools say what a minute, we don’t do it the way Podunk State does it. Podunk State’s not violating NCAA rules by allowing you or anybody else, any of our coaches, to sign every guy at the academic minimum. It’s not against the rules.

But, most schools rise above that bar. So if you’re at Duke or Wake or Boston College, one of these private universities, your student body is made up of a lot more impressive, higher GPAs, higher SATs, ACT scores. You’re still going to give your coaches some exceptions, but you’re going to ask your coaches to sign a higher-caliber student athlete than they would sign on average at a large public university, say, in the SEC especially, or Florida State in the ACC, and some others. It’s a scale. How far down that road are you willing to go, in terms of how much flexibility you give your coaches on those incoming student athlete matters?

Not everybody says, sign 25 guys as long as they pass the NCAA low bar. The better the school, generally speaking, the higher caliber student athlete you must bring in on average. Again, save a few spots for the guys who barely make it academically, even at the better schools. Similarly, as a university, you have to decide how far down the road you’re willing to go. When it comes to whether it’s Duke basketball magically having a lot of sociology majors for stretches of the Mike Krzyzewski era. Or another school loading up in athletes in another major that doesn’t complicate practice schedules, road trip schedules, etc., as much. You don’t have a lot of pre-med majors at these football and men’s basketball programs. It’s harder. It’s more time-consuming. They tend to stay away.

And the exceptions that we read about, we read about in part because they’re the exceptions. It’s only a matter of degree. Stanford does it one way at the very top, Duke, Wake, BC, and others close to that level. Larger public universities tend to be at the other end of the spectrum. All in all, within the rules. Same exact motive for easy classes, manageable majors, favorable professors, for athletes as there was before, and there will be down the road. That motive has not changed at all by the UNC case where, remember, the NCAA couldn’t show that they were anything besides insanely easy, dysfunctional classes. Everybody handed in something. That was the bridge that the NCAA couldn’t cross, as desperately as they wanted to punish the Tar Heels.

Why creating fraudulent classes doesn’t work

The second area is an interesting one. Why not just create the fraudulent, the bogus, the described one way but executed a different way classes? There are two things you must remember to have an intelligent opinion on this. Number one: what’s your goal? Your stated goal is to help athletes? You just broke an NCAA rule. In the Carolina case, they failed to prove that the whole AFAM scheme was designed at the start to help athletes. In fact, at the very beginning of it, there were like three athletes, and 85% of the people in those bogus AFAM classes were non-athletes. That doesn’t sound something that was initially inspired by the goal of helping athletes and keeping them eligible.

Once you say out loud or put in an email, “Hey, the Tar Heels got away with it. Isn’t there going to be a copycat syndrome here?” Once you as an athletic director, a university professor, a chairperson or whatever, once you put down on paper, in an email, in a text message, or something else that could be found later. Once you say, “Our goal here to help athletes”, you just violated the NCAA’s most basic rule in a way that they couldn’t prove in the UNC case.

Also remember this: you’d better be really quiet about it. You’d better not say out loud, or write in an email or text, or be recorded saying or implying this is designed, this fraudulent scheme, this is designed to help athletes. Because if that evidence is found, guess what? You’re not getting off the hook the way the Tar Heels did. They lawyered up, and they won. They cut the NCAA off at the pass in more ways than one.

The other part of it is that academically-minded people don’t typically think in ways of committing fraud on purpose. And you as a fan might think that way. People whose job it is to help educate folks, when they are committing fraud, do you know what they do? They do it by themselves, quietly, away from the spotlight, hoping to not get caught. They don’t do it in conjunction of, “Hey, let’s call the chairperson, let’s call the AD, let’s call the university president. Let’s come up with this fraudulent scheme to give athletes good grades and keep them eligible, and get a leg up competitively on our competition.” No, academically-minded people don’t think that way, and when they do, they’re trying to do it secretively because they know it’s against the rules. I know why you asked the question. It is a legitimate one. But the copycat concept in the Carolina case doesn’t apply at all on the easy classes side of things, and is way more complicated than you think it is on the bogus classes side of things.

I’m not worried about it. You’re not going to see it. And if we do end up with a case somewhat like Carolina, or what we’ve seen at Michigan and Auburn over the years, it’s not going to be because academic-minded people went out of their way on purpose to create a scheme to help athletes. It’s going to be because it happened that way. And some people smelled bad things, and didn’t address it, and it got worse, the way it did at Carolina in the AFAM scandal. The copycat theory, add it to the list of stuff that you need to understand these subtleties, these nuances, sometimes the geeky legalese, to appreciate the theory that works and at cocktail parties just really doesn’t stand up very well out here in the real world.