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In Punishing SMU, NCAA Cites Academic Fraud, Unethical Actions

In an announcement Tuesday, the NCAA said a former administrative assistant for the basketball team took an online course for a recruit to help him become eligible to play at the school.

Dallas Hall on SMU campus.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Southern Methodist University's men's basketball and golf teams have been fined, placed on probation and banned from this year's postseason after an NCAA infractions committee found that athletics workers behaved unethically and committed academic fraud.

The basketball team's famous coach, Larry Brown, will also be suspended for 30 percent of the upcoming season, according to an announcement by the college sports governing authority. 

The NCAA found that a former administrative assistant for the basketball team took an online course for a recruit to help him become eligible to play at the school. When the NCAA looked into the case, the assistant asked the player to lie to investigators, the NCAA said. 

SMU can appeal the case, and said in a statement Tuesday that it is reviewing that possibility. The school didn't deny that wrongdoing occurred but said that the academic fraud didn't involve an SMU course or a member of its faculty. The class the athlete took didn't end up being one that was necessary for his eligibility, the school said. 

As it reviews its punishment, the university said it is "particularly concerned about sanctions that are punitive against student-athletes who were not involved in any infractions."

"I am saddened for our men’s basketball and men’s golf student-athletes – especially our seniors – who work hard to earn the right to compete in the postseason," said Rick Hart, SMU's director of athletics. "It is unfair to penalize these students."

Brown didn't have anything to do with the fraud, but is being punished for failing to "promote an atmosphere of compliance within his program," the NCAA said. He didn't follow up on the student's coursework, the NCAA said, and didn't report the violation when he found out about it in 2014. 

"I am saddened and disappointed that the Committee on Infractions believes that I did not fully fulfill my duties and I will consider my options to challenge that assertion in the coming days," Brown said in a statement. "I truly believe that our program has dedicated itself unwaveringly to the ideals of academic integrity and NCAA compliance.  Still, there was a violation in our program and I take responsibility for that and offer my sincere apologies to the University community.”

The student and the assistant aren't identified in the NCAA report. But the player has been identified by other news outlets, including ESPN, as star guard Keith Frazier. 

The golf team, meanwhile, committed recruiting violations, the NCAA said. The team's former coach reached out to 10 potential players over several months before the NCAA allows coaches to contact high school athletes. 

For both violations, the school has been placed on probation for three years and fined $5,000, plus one percent of the total budget for the basketball and golf teams. The basketball team will also have to give up credit for its wins from the 2013-14 season, when Frazier played while he should have been ineligible, the NCAA said. Both teams will also have the number of scholarships it is allowed to give out reduced. 

"A fairly large number of individuals were making at least individual decisions that were unethical," said Michael F. Adams, chairman of the NCAA infractions committee that issued the punishment. 

Those are major penalties for a school and athletics department on the rise. The school's sports teams struggled for decades after the football team was banned for a year in the 1980s after it was revealed that players were receiving illicit payments. That punishment, which became known as the death penalty, effectively downgraded the program from a powerhouse to a perennial loser. The whole department, which relied on football for revenue, suffered. 

In a conference call with reporters, Adams noted SMU's history of violating NCAA rules. The school has been called before the NCAA infractions committee 10 times since 1958. The basketball program last ran into trouble in 2011, when it admitted that coaches sent impermissible text messages to recruits. Adams said that history of violations was taken into consideration when this year's punishment was issued. 

In a statement, President Gerald Turner said SMU's compliance program is "among the best in the nation." He said the university acted quickly and responsibly when allegations of wrongdoing first came to light. 

"SMU has a proud history of academic and athletic excellence, and we are committed to full compliance with NCAA bylaws and with our ethical standards," he said. "Moving forward, we know that we can — and will — do better.”  

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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