There was confusion around college sports last summer when the NCAA hit North Carolina with a lack of institutional control charge for its academic fraud scandal. By charging North Carolina with "impermissible benefits," the NCAA used a phrase more commonly applied for gaining something of monetary value, not free academic grades.

The NCAA stayed away from the North Carolina case for years despite reports showing that a disproportionate number of athletes received high grades from bogus classes for decades in order to stay eligible. Finally, the NCAA acted by going with the impermissible benefits charge, a way around the NCAA bylaws and the constant confusion and frustration over who gets to define academic fraud -- the NCAA or the individual school.

On Friday, the NCAA Division I Council passed changes to clarify its academic integrity rules, marking the first legislative switch in this area since 1983. The North Carolina case is still pending. The NCAA has said a new notice of allegations will soon be sent to the university.

Various NCAA committees worked for two years on changing the academic misconduct definition. The goal is to draw clearer lines for Division I members in academic fraud cases. The new rules require schools to have their own academic integrity policies that apply to all students. Each school determines its own policies and the NCAA says a university must follow them when there’s an academic integrity issue involving an athlete.

There’s a new term to learn. Instead of “academic extra benefits,” the NCAA now will say “impermissible academic assistance.” The definition both broadens and narrows the scope of whether the NCAA can allege academic misconduct.

A player’s eligibility doesn’t have to be affected for the NCAA to charge impermissible academic assistance involving a university staff member. That broadens the scope.

On the other hand, Kathy Sulentic, chair of the NCAA enforcement staff’s academic integrity group, explained last September that there would be a “very high bar” to bring a violation under impermissible academic assistance. Universities still want to control what’s academic fraud on their own campus, but they want the NCAA to make an obvious violation charge if the school’s investigation “came out with an absurd result,” Sulentic said.

In the new NCAA bylaws, impermissible academic assistance is defined in two ways:

1) “Substantial assistance” that is not generally available to the university’s study body and it helps an athlete become eligible to play, receive financial aid or earn an Academic Progress Rate point.

Or 2) An academic exception that results in a grade change, academic credit or fulfillment of a graduation requirement when that exception doesn’t exist for other university students and it helps an athlete become eligible to play, receive financial aid or earn an Academic Progress Rate point.

When there’s a question of academic misconduct involving an athlete, the new NCAA bylaws state the school should investigate and adjudicate the allegations based on its policies. Because campuses are different, universities have varying approaches on whether to withhold an athlete from playing while they determine if academic misconduct occurred. Some campuses process a case within a week; others take several months. 

The new NCAA bylaws let schools have a policy allowing an “expedited investigation and adjudication” if that accelerated review is approved through the university’s normal process. The accelerated review policy must be approved by a top university official and be kept on file or accessible on the school’s website.

“Decisions made by the Council are final,” the NCAA said in a news release, “though the Division I Board of Directors reviews those decisions and can overturn them.”

In other issues the NCAA Council tackled this week:

  • Schools are now required to have written transfer policies to handle when an athlete requests permission to contact another university. The policy must include a description of services that will or won’t be provided to the player considering a transfer, such as academic support services and access to athletic facilities. The idea is more transparency on the process, although schools can still determine where players can transfer.
  • The NCAA tabled a proposal to let football coaches make contact with high school juniors during the spring evaluation period. The proposal, made by the Football Oversight Committee, called for each school to be limited to six in-person, off-campus recruiting contacts per athlete at any site during his junior and senior years combined. Official visits would not have counted to the total of six. The proposal said it’s increasingly difficult for assistant coaches to avoid contact with recruits during spring evaluations and a new rule would decrease the number of Level II and Level III violations.
  • The NCAA tabled a proposal that would have extended by four years the process for picking 5-7 bowl teams if there aren’t enough bowl-eligible teams. There's an ongoing debate over how to fill bowls when there aren't enough 6-6 or better teams. Currently, the bylaws state that 5-7 teams with a top-five Academic Progress Rate score are selected first by a bowl, which is allowed to pick a 5-7 team only once in a four-year period. The tabled NCAA proposal called for 5-7 teams to be picked based only on the highest APR score and for the bowl-game exception to get extended through 2020. The “deserving team” exception expires on Aug. 2.
  • The NCAA eliminated a requirement that athletes get written approval for appearing in a charitable promotion. The SEC said the need for written approval created violations because of procedural requirements. Athletes and a representative of the charity now must “affirm” that the athlete’s use of his or her name, image or likeness follows NCAA guidelines.
  •  Coaches and staff members can now attend funerals and make donations when a family member of a recruit dies. Donations of up to $100 are allowed. The NCAA called this a “common sense” approach to such situations.

The UNC academic scandal forced some changes from the NCAA. (USATSI)