INDIANAPOLIS — NCAA President Mark Emmert said Monday that findings from a recent investigation into academic fraud at the University of North Carolina are troubling, disturbing and shocking.
While Emmert said he would withhold final judgment until the NCAA completes its own investigation, the usually cautious former university president was downright blunt during a 20-minute interview with The Associated Press at its Indianapolis headquarters.
"Just based on the (Kenneth) Wainstein report, this is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about," Emmert said Monday. "Universities are supposed to take absolutely most seriously the education of their students, right? I mean that's why they exist, that's their function in life. If the Wainstein report is accurate, then there was severe, severe compromising of all those issues, so it's deeply troubling. ... It's absolutely disturbing that we find ourselves here right now."
North Carolina athletic department spokesman Steve Kirschner said the school would not comment on Emmert's remarks.
The report, authored by a former Justice Department official who conducted an internal investigation into the NCAA's own enforcement department scandal in 2013, was released last week. It detailed how academic fraud in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department went on for nearly two decades. According to Wainstein, the "shadow curriculum" involved more than involved more than 3,100 students — about half of whom were athletes.
The NCAA has been on the defensive as well.
In August, former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon won a federal court case that could force schools to put as much as $5,000 per year into a trust fund that college athletes could collect after they leave school. NCAA attorneys are expected to appeal that decision in November. And recently, former Clemson football player Martin Jenkins went to court, seeking to eliminate the NCAA's ability to control scholarship cost controls.
If O'Bannon prevails on appeal and Jenkins wins his case, Emmert said it would create an unprecedented college landscape.
That may happen anyway.
The NCAA's board of directors meets Thursday, less than four weeks after the five richest football conferences submitted requests seeking greater autonomy to expand scholarships to include the full cost-of-attendance, multi-year scholarships and lifetime scholarships that would allow players to return to school and finish their degrees. Emmert said he supported all three measures and a fourth, which would improve health insurance.
If approved, the power-conference schools and everyone else could be competing on uneven playing fields.
Then there's the divergent paths No. 9 Georgia and No. 2 Florida State have taken since their star football players were accused of receiving improper benefits from autograph sales.
Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley has missed the last two games after the school suspended him indefinitely so it could investigate. The defending national champion Seminoles have allowed Winston, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, to continue playing — a distinction not lost on Emmert.
While he declined to talk specifically about the Florida State case, he acknowledged other schools have been forced to vacate wins when they use ineligible players.
"From the facts that we know today, publicly, Georgia's behavior has been commendable," he said. "They, apparently, saw something that concerned them, and they dealt with it directly and their athletic department seems to have handled that very, very appropriately based on what we know today.
"When a school has information about inappropriate behavior that might render a student-athlete ineligible, then they're under an obligation to respond. If it turns out later that they did know and did have facts that demonstrated that someone was ineligible and they played them anyway, then sure those wins can be vacated and that's happened many times."
But it was the details of the North Carolina case that drew Emmert's harshest comments.
"When you look at what we all know today, the Wainstein report, and just based upon that," Emmert said, "you look at the, I look at these facts, like everyone, and I find them shocking."