Bob Johnson column May 29

This is the end of the NCAA as we know it.

The college athletics governing body, which pins its lucrative nonprofit existence on the fiction of academic integrity, just confessed that it doesn’t really stand for that.

Its latest avoidance leaves the agency standing starkly naked as simply a group of overpaid power brokers trying to hold on to an outdated business model.

In its response to a lawsuit filed by former student-athletes claiming that the NCAA and member University of North Carolina committed academic fraud by promising them a quality education they did not receive, here is what the NCAA said in its defense: The NCAA has no legal responsibility “to ensure the academic integrity of the courses offered to student-athletes at its member institutions.”

That’s correct. The group that determines the academic eligibility of student-athletes and polices the academic performance of its member institutions now professes not to have a role in the “academic integrity” of that process.

At this point, you may rightly question whether there is another group calling itself the NCAA.

No, there’s only one. And it looks very small.

That same group claims on its website that “in the collegiate model of sports, the young men and women competing on the field or court are students first, athletes second.” That same group argues in litigation elsewhere that student-athletes are not entitled to share in any of the profits they helped create because they are already paid with a college education.

So, let’s get this logic straight: NCAA members do not have to share profits because athletes are already paid with an education that may be worthless. Is that really the razor-thin logic upon which NCAA President Mark Emmert wants to balance his existence?

Apparently so. Given the chance to explain away the contrived position, the agency proceeded to turn its head completely around.

“This case is troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the law does not and has never required the NCAA to ensure that every student-athlete is actually taking full advantage of the academic and athletic opportunities provided to them,” Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer, said in a prepared statement.

Translation: It’s not our fault if the classes you are directed to take at one of our leading member institutions turn out to be a sham. Student beware. College education, according to the NCAA, has the same “as is” warranty as a ’98 Chevy on a used-car lot.

The North Carolina case involved thousands of athletes who, over 18 years, were funneled into classes that never met, where advisers fudged grades and accepted plagiarism so that athletes who were falling behind in class could remain eligible to play sports.

No one suggests that “student-athletes” were entirely free of culpability here. There is no record of complaints over the lack of academic substance.

This latest NCAA revelation, though, goes far beyond simple legal maneuvering to evade responsibility. It goes to the heart of what the agency — at least up to now — perceived to be its core mission.

“If they can’t legitimize that the academics are real and take no responsibility for that, then why certify students semester after semester to play?” Mary Willingham, the UNC whistleblower, told CNN. “It’s lost its meaning for me.”

Indeed, why not just take AAU teams, prop them up at some fly-by-night correspondence school and claim the same virtue? Is there really a difference here?

In its lawsuit defense, the NCAA likened its role to that of the American Bar Association or American Medical Association and said that those entities are not sued every time a lawyer or doctor acts inappropriately.

The holes in that logic are gaping. The ABA and AMA do not prevent their members from earning money at their profession, instead claiming that they are getting like value through an education. Further, both lawyers and doctors are governed and sanctioned by state agencies that test for competency.

Regardless of the outcome in this particular soap opera, the NCAA is under siege from all sides. It is a billion-dollar industry that serves two distinct masters. On one hand, it provides a framework for low-revenue college sports and their student-athletes. On the other, though, it is a sports czar that is fighting a losing battle for its virtue.

It is the latter image that emerges from the UNC scandal.

Not responsible for “academic integrity,” the NCAA claims in trying to hold onto its spoils. There is a sad element of truth lurking in those UNC legal papers. The NCAA apparently is not responsible for any integrity anymore, especially its own.

Author photo
Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.