It was certainly surprising to learn that Syracuse men’s basketball player James Southerland was suspended because of an NCAA investigation into possible academic fraud. Mike Waters of the Post-Standard is reporting that Southerland was suspended because of questions surrounding a term paper and whether or not a tutor wrote a portion of it. If this investigation turns into a violation, Southerland faces a lengthy suspension and loss of eligibility, if he is reinstated at all. And that would be a big if in an academic fraud case. Syracuse is likely to face some institutional penalties as well if a tutor involved with the athletic department is found to be involved.
But after the initial shock, many people have jumped to the question of why Syracuse if North Carolina has faced no punishment. North Carolina is accused of academic fraud in a much wider ranging scandal than one player’s term paper. So why is the NCAA zeroing in on upstate New York instead of Chapel Hill?
The answer is that there is no debate that the accusations against Southerland and Syracuse, if true, constitute NCAA violations. On the continuum of shady or unsound activities involving athletes and academics, writing papers for athletes is way on one end, the end that everyone agrees is a violation. What has come out of UNC so far is in the middle somewhere, open to more debate about whether the NCAA rules do or even should apply.
Reasonable people can criticize the NCAA for not taking a more active approach with UNC, although figuring out just how aggressive the NCAA is being with a school is often mostly a wild guess. But with internal investigations still ongoing around a debatable topic, the NCAA actively trying to punish UNC for anything at this point would be foolish. For starters there is the sense that the NCAA missed something with North Carolina’s infractions case, so the pressure is on to not have to come back to this issue a third time.
But there is also the possibility that if the NCAA tried to take a case to the Committee on Infractions with the current information, North Carolina might win. Any sort of victory with the Committee on Infractions, even a finding that one of many violations was secondary rather than major is rare. Even in the most crushing victory for alleged NCAA offenders, when the Sinful Seven fought off expulsion from the NCAA, the schools admitted the violations occurred.
Perhaps in the new enforcement structure with a larger and more diverse Committee on Infractions, big wins for schools or even acquittals will become more common. Perhaps as petty rules are eliminated, the enforcement staff brings more questionable cases to make sure the remaining rules (which we assume are important ones) are well enforced by having even potential violations go before a COI panel. But currently, it seems that only sure things end up in an infractions hearing.
So barring a new strategy from the enforcement staff or the right set of new facts coming out in the near future, the NCAA looks unlikely to make a major move on UNC until all the internal investigations are done, and the move then might only be to launch a follow-up investigation. With Syracuse though, the only real question is whether what is alleged to have happened actually did. That is the only major question the NCAA would need to answer before bringing some type of case against Syracuse.
Author: John Infante