Report That Clears UT Athletics of Cheating Still Raises Red Flags

UT Basketball, still safe from the NCAA.EXPAND
UT Basketball, still safe from the NCAA.

The University of Texas athletic department is unlikely to face any NCAA sanctions for accusations that members of the Longhorns' basketball teams cheated in several classes. That's the takeaway from an independent report commissioned by the university to investigate the claims of academic impropriety — at least if you believe that the most important potential outcome of the investigation was the placing of sanctions on the athletic department.

Marsh worked with the university and members of the NCAA's enforcement division and talked to administrators, members of the athletic department and current and former student athletes. The group looked at dubious credit given to UT recruits before they enrolled at the school and the most damning allegations made in a Chronicle of Higher Education article — that Martez Walker, a Longhorns basketball player, was caught taking pictures of questions on a math test before looking for help on those questions outside the classroom. Walker eventually passed the class anyway, but Marsh did not find that the department did anything wrong in handling Walker's case before the shooting guard transferred to Oakland University in January 2015.

"After an extensive investigation and based on the information available, we find no support for the allegations of academic misconduct or violations of the institution's procedures," Gene Marsh, the investigator hired by the university to helm the survey says in his report.

It seems, as UT's basketball program struggles out of the morass left by former coach Rick Barnes, it won't be getting saddled with NCAA probation, too. The college sports cartel typically looks kindly on schools willing to shell out cash to investigate themselves, and seems likely to be satisfied by the investigation.

More interesting is the exhaustive description of the academic process at UT for the school's highest profile student athletes. Provided they meet minimum admissions standards at the school, those awarded athletic scholarships aren't subject to the same admissions process that beguiles so many high schoolers in the state. Once on campus, student athletes are assigned an Athletics Academics Counselor from the Office of Athletics Student Services. They can get advising through the regular advisers provided by the college in which they're enrolled, too, but, as described in the Marsh report, the athletic department-specific counselors serve as athletes' sherpas as they try to stay eligible to play for the Longhorns.

"Some coaches and faculty who have more than a distant knowledge of the academic experience of student-athletes at UT expressed several important concerns, with varying degrees of intensity. One concern was that there was too much focus on publicizing and promoting higher team GPAs, rather than encouraging student-athletes to stay in more rigorous courses and majors that matched the stated interests of the student-athletes when they were recruited and came to campus. Another somewhat related view was that student-athletes are encouraged to drop courses too quickly when they encounter difficulties, rather than hanging tough and staying with the challenge offered by the course. One coach said he would happily trade a lower team GPA for the operating principle that student-athletes should be in a full course load, staying on track to graduate on time and in a major that the coach has discussed with the student-athlete as being the student-athlete’s first choice, and which the coach perceived as being well within the academic strengths of the student-athlete. Some coaches and faculty expressed the concern that the Office of Athletics Student Services exerts too much control over the student-athletes in their selection of courses and majors. These are not opinions that came from only one or two people."

While the report doesn't say directly that athletes are being steered toward any specific colleges or majors, it does note that more than 60 percent of athletes on UT's money sports teams — football, men's and women's basketball and baseball — are enrolled in the College of Education. Among African-American student athletes, that number is even higher, at 71 percent. Both figures are far higher than the rates of enrollment of the university as a whole. 

“UT’s College of Education is an outstanding school that is consistently ranked among the top public programs in the nation,” UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves wrote in a letter on Wednesday. “But we must better understand why student-athletes enroll in it as frequently as they do and whether they are exploring the opportunities in the wide range of degree programs on campus.

Fenves promised Wednesday that he would work to implement the recommendations for improvement included in the report, including greater academic oversight for advisers in the athletic department and further examining the "overrepresentation of student-athletes in the College of Education."

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