By Bernie Woodall
(Reuters) - The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) said on Friday it "could not conclude academic violations" at the University of North Carolina, which had been accused of running sham classes for years for some of its scholarship athletes.
The University of North Carolina (UNC) was found to have committed two minor infractions, but avoided harsh penalties that could have included barring its powerhouse men's basketball team from playing in the national championship tournament.
“While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’ offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student athletes,” said Greg Sankey, chief hearing officer for the NCAA panel that looked into the charges.
The investigation centered on allegations the university gave athletes extra benefits, such as easy courses not available to non-athlete students.
The probe examined allegations that courses for the athletes were aimed at ensuring high marks with little to no effort so they could maintain the minimum grade requirements needed to remain eligible to play intercollegiate sports.
"In short, the courses involved no class attendance; limited, if any, faculty oversight; and liberal grading," the NCAA said in its report, which also said at least 3,100 students enrolled in such courses over about two decades "involving irregular instruction."
The NCAA's report said it could not prove that the institution offered these courses only to athletes.
“The panel is in no way supporting what happened. What happened is troubling,” Sankey told reporters on a Friday conference call.
The panel held two days of hearings that included appearances by many school officials, including top coaches such as the UNC men's basketball coach Roy Williams and his attorney.
The NCAA noted UNC had taken steps to correct the system that led to the allegations, including more centralized management of a program to academically support athletes, as well as elimination of the mentoring portion of that program.
One major allegation was that UNC lacked institutional control, but the NCAA said it was not able to make that finding.
Women and men athletes were alleged to have benefited from the courses.
The UNC's men's basketball team is the reigning NCAA champion.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Editing by Bernadette Baum)