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NCAA discussing how it deals with academic fraud

By Sara Ganim CNN | 4/25/2014, 1:50 p.m.
Various file shots of the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on September 26, 2013. CNN photo.

Gurney and another professor, David Ridpath at Ohio University, just started research that will compare what is known about UNC's academic scandal to other institution's academic scandals and how they were handled by the NCAA.

Gurney said he suspects this may be the NCAA's way of getting around taking a second look at what happened at UNC.

"From what I see at the moment, I feel strongly it is the worst academic fraud violation in the history of the NCAA," Gurney said. "... They choose to ignore it. They are juggling so many balls right now, with respect to lawsuits, unionization issues, they really can't afford right at this moment to open up a major investigation on North Carolina. It would further jeopardize public confidence in the NCAA's ability to control athletics."

He frames it with "from what I see at the moment," because the full breadth of what happened at UNC is still trickling out, two years after it was first reported by the News & Observer of Raleigh.

UNC has long insisted that the paper classes were solely the idea of one man -- now-indicted professor Julius Nyang'oro, who was head of the African-American studies department. The school says it has instituted reforms to ensure such academic problems don't recur.

A third look at UNC scandal

This year, shortly after CNN reported the findings of whistleblower Mary Willingham that showed a shocking number of functionally illiterate and ill-prepared student athletes at the prestigious public school, UNC announced it commissioned its third review of the scandal.

This time, former U.S. Justice Department attorney Ken Wainstein is taking a look. Among his questions: Did members of the athletic department know and talk about the paper classes? Previous reports commissioned by UNC said no.

Another question: How long was this happening? There is still no clear answer on that, either.

Meanwhile, Willingham says she expects to play a role in the upcoming civil case of former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon vs. the NCAA. O'Bannon is suing to allow student-athletes to be compensated the use of their name and likeness.

Several NCAA critics have told CNN they believe the NCAA refuses to look at the fraud at UNC because it might mean conceding their biggest argument against paying players -- that they athletes are paid in the form of an education.

"The umbilical cord between the student and the athlete is being slowly cut and if it's cut I think that has very serious consequences for the NCAA," said Tom McMillen, former basketball star-turned-congressman and a member of the University of Maryland's Board of Regents. "Athletes are not given an education. They step out of the university and they may have a degree, but they don't have an education and that's the sad thing about it."

McMillen has advised those pushing for reform -- most recently those behind the attempt by Northwestern University football players to unionize -- to go after the NCAA over the way they handle academic fraud. He said during a forum at the Aspen Institute that academic fraud is "the chink in the armor" of the NCAA.