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Twelve credit hours of physical education courses is a lot, but it wasn't enough for Ricky Clemons, not during summer semester 2002. He needed more. So Clemons signed up for a study-by-mail course in English composition from a college in Colorado, three more credits' worth. Still not enough.
Clemons then found Brigham Young University's Web site, and became part of the Provo school's extended student body by enrolling in a biology class, a human anatomy class and a sociology seminar - nine more credit hours of study-by-mail courses that brought his semester load to a crushing 24 credit hours.
It would be a daunting avalanche of reading assignments, research papers and final exams for a magna cum laude, to say nothing of a high-school dropout like Clemons. But the junior-college undergrad had a strong motivation to load up his transcript like a dinner plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and it had little to do with the pursuit of a diploma.
Clemons was a basketball player. And a good one.
BYU is proud and protective of its spotless reputation for competing within the rules. It is one of just a handful of major universities that has never been placed on probation in any sport by the NCAA, college athletics' governing body. But for the past five years, according to two NCAA investigations and federal criminal indictments in Kansas, the Mormon Church-owned school's independent study program has been employed by coaches and athletes - including Clemons, a handful of football recruits in Kansas, and more than two dozen football and basketball players in Louisiana - to improperly gain or maintain athletic eligibility at other schools.
"For the last two or three years, we have seen a number of transcripts with one hour or two hours or three hours from BYU correspondence courses," said Wayne Baker, the executive director of the National Junior College Athletic Association, the small-school counterpart to the NCAA.
That's because word apparently spread among college basketball coaches that BYU's enormous correspondence program - with 28,358 students enrolled in so-called "distance learning" courses in 2005, it's one of the largest in America - could be easily exploited.
"There is clearly a rapidly moving coaches' grapevine," said David Price, vice president for enforcement services at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. And that grapevine identified BYU as a good place to cheat.
BYU has taken steps to address the problems of fraud, but its entanglement in academic scandals has come to illustrate a more widespread challenge facing college sports - athletes and coaches cheating on Internet and correspondence courses. "I think our reputation brings a lot of people to us," said Richard Eddy, BYU's dean of continuing education, "and unfortunately, some of those people do things they shouldn't do."
BYU is fertile ground: Why BYU? Baker believes it's because the school has structured its correspondence programs to be easily accessible, while also maintaining its stature and integrity, making it less likely to raise suspicions. Until the recent rash of allegations, BYU had detected virtually no improprieties with its distance learning programs.
Then Clemons signed up - "the first case like this probably in 15 years," Eddy said.
The 5-foot-11 point guard needed to collect a large number of college credits in a hurry to become eligible to play at Missouri. He found plenty of help, not all of it legitimate, at Barton County Community College, according to a federal indictment that alleges a wide range of improprieties at the Great Bend, Kan., school.
The onetime NBA prospect received two B's and an A from BYU for his course work that summer, work that prosecutors believe he did not actually perform. "In most cases," alleges an indictment against former Barton County coach Ryan Cross, "the work was performed by others, or the answers to exam questions were provided to [Clemons]."
He was hardly alone, however. At Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., an NCAA investigation discovered that several coaches enrolled more than two dozen football and basketball players in BYU courses without the athletes' knowledge. At the University of Kansas, football assistants directed athletes to BYU correspondence courses, helped them register and, the NCAA suspects, allowed recruits to cheat on exams.
And Barton County students seem to have a special affinity for BYU courses. From January 1997 to July 2003, the college accepted transcripts from 17 students with BYU credits, particularly in Principles of Biology and College Algebra, according to Dick Wade, the school's dean of enrollment management. Of those, eight would go on to play men's basketball for Barton County, not including Clemons, who never donned a uniform for the school.
Barton County has fielded nationally ranked junior-college basketball teams several times over the past 15 years, and has developed a reputation for accepting students with academic difficulties. Among ex-Barton County Cougars are two Utah Jazz players, former center Aleksandar Radojevic and current center Robert Whaley.
Catching cheaters: But it was Clemons' case that brought Barton County to BYU's attention, Eddy said. In the summer of 2003, BYU reviewed Clemons' coursework, and though the inquiry didn't find any wrongdoing, the school decided to ban the use of coaches as proctors, who administer and oversee tests for students taking exams off BYU's campus.
"We have changed our processes to be on the forefront of curbing cheating," said BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins.
Those changes also include a 2005 decision to require students enrolled in distance courses for college credit to take tests at certified sites on campuses.
It's difficult to estimate what effect the changes are having, mostly because it's not clear how widespread the problem is. The NJCAA does not track the number of transcripts with distance-learning credits from other schools, but administrators believe the number is growing. And Price, the NCAA watchdog, would not reveal how many investigations his office is actively pursuing involving online courses, but admitted there were "a lot more than I thought there would be. The state of technology has made it much more common."
Yes, but falsifying athletes' academic records to keep them eligible to play is hardly a new concept. With the pressure constantly rising on coaches to win games and championships, and on star players to develop their talents sufficiently to earn professional contracts, keeping college sports free of academic cheating is about as easy as keeping USC out of the end zone.
So online fraud is just a new twist on an old scam.
"I think all of us have some frustrations over Internet courses and distance learning," said Baker, the NJCAA director. "It's difficult to monitor. It's difficult to control, and it's difficult for us to judge the legitimacy of it."
BYU even has a reputation for strictness about proctors and test sites, according to John Krutsch, assistant director of distance learning at Utah Valley State College in Orem. "For them to get hoodwinked shows just how hard it is to prevent cheating," Krutsch said.
Especially since there is virtually no way to distinguish between honest work and malfeasance. "Who am I or you to say it's not legitimate?" Baker points out.
Suspicions raised: Clemons' case was especially suspicious, however. After leaving a Raleigh, N.C., high school without a diploma, which prevented him from playing for the major universities that had pursued him, Clemons was recruited by the College of Southern Idaho, a two-year school in Twin Falls. After two stellar seasons, including a school-record 51-point outburst against UVSC, Missouri persuaded him to transfer to its Columbia campus.
Trouble is, he still didn't have a degree. Missouri coaches addressed that technicality by directing Clemons to Barton County, where basketball coach Ryan Wolf helped him sign up for that 24-credit summer smorgasbord, including 12 hours of phys-ed classes at Barton County.
By somehow passing all 24 credits, Clemons was awarded an associate's degree from Southern Idaho, making him eligible to play at Missouri. He opened the Tigers' 2002-03 season as the starting point guard, and averaged 14.2 points and a team-high 3.5 assists.
His background received national attention, however, when Clemons was arrested for choking and unlawfully restraining a woman in his Columbia apartment in January 2003. Reporters began asking questions about Clemons' background and his 24-credit-hour summer. Eventually, Missouri's involvement with Clemons, including allegations of cash payments to the player, led to an NCAA investigation.
BYU and Barton County started investigating, too, though BYU initially found no evidence of cheating. Barton County's internal investigation uncovered plenty of wrongdoing, however, and the school shared its findings with federal authorities.
Eventually Wolf, Cross, five other Barton County coaches and the school's athletic director were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that range from embezzling athletes' financial-aid money to mail fraud to perjury.
An indictment against Wolf says he asked Lyles Lashley, Barton County's track coach, to certify that he proctored Clemons' tests when he did not. Wolf then mailed the tests to BYU, according to the indictment.
An indictment against Lashley said he likewise fraudulently claimed he proctored two other athletes taking BYU courses.
"The coaches sometimes like to exploit structure systems and bypass them in order to get a kid that they want eligible," said Veldon Law, Barton County's president while Wolf was coaching at the school.
In December, Wolf pleaded guilty to four counts of fraud and theft of student-aid funds. As part of a plea agreement, the other criminal counts against him, including those related to Clemons' BYU courses, were dismissed. Wolf is scheduled to be sentenced in August and could testify against some of the other Barton County defendants.
Lashley pleaded guilty in March to one felony count of embezzlement. Six other counts, including those related to BYU correspondence students, were dismissed in a plea agreement. No sentencing date has been set.
Cross, Wolf's predecessor as basketball coach, was indicted on two counts of fraud and is awaiting a trial date.
Neither Clemons nor any other athletes are charged with crimes in the scandal, though Clemons was eventually dismissed from Missouri's basketball team for unrelated violations. But BYU has placed a hold on Clemons' transcript, Eddy said, and the university will revoke his nine credits if it is proved that he cheated.
More trouble in Kansas: BYU is also monitoring another case in Kansas, where a University of Kansas football graduate assistant is accused of "arranging for academic fraud." The NCAA claims in August 2003 the assistant had a football recruit complete a Math 110 exam from BYU without a proctor and allowed two other recruits to work together on what was supposed to be a proctored Geology 110 exam.
Kansas has until Aug. 13 to respond to the allegations.
Similar abuses occurred at Nicholls State in 2004, when an inquiry was undertaken when the school noticed a large number of BYU credits on athletes' transcripts. NCAA rules only allow student-athletes to take online courses from another institution to fulfill eligibility requirements in order to transfer, but not to meet progress-toward-a-degree standards once on campus. Nicholls State coaches were relying on the NCAA not checking individual transcripts to ensure that was not happening.
The fraud went much further, however. The NCAA discovered that football and basketball coaches had enrolled at least 28 players in BYU classes, some of them without the players' knowledge, then had course work completed by academic advisers. The coaches received answers to assignments, and improperly served as proctors, the NCAA said in placing Nicholls State on probation for four years for "gross academic fraud."
Several coaches, including head football coach Daryl Daye, were fired as a result of the investigation.
Rob Bernardi, Nicholls State's athletic director, said his school has since tightened its proctoring requirements. And while BYU wasn't at fault, he said, the several cases involving the Provo school should make any institution nervous if it sees online credits from BYU on a student's transcript.
"It does cast a shadow on BYU," he said.
Tightening security: BYU intends to remove that shadow by continuing to tighten security procedures in its correspondence programs, the school said. The university only allows professors who are teaching courses on campus to handle the online versions of the same class. Professors now have the online means to change test questions instantaneously if he or she wishes. And additional mechanisms are constantly being considered, Jenkins said.
Still, bogus classes and questionable work are problems that will likely never fade away, said Richard Southall, a Memphis professor and associate director of The Drake Group of professors, who advocate changes in college athletics. Particularly, he said, as technology makes it easier for students to enroll from anywhere in the world.
"As long as athletes see academics as a hassle or a hinderance," Southall said, "they're going to try to find shortcuts."
* An NCAA investigation shows coaches at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., enrolled more than two dozen football and basketball players in BYU courses without the athletes' knowledge.
* At the University of Kansas, football assistants directed athletes to BYU correspondence courses, helped them register and, the NCAA suspects, allowed recruits to cheat on exams.
* Barton County Community College in Kansas, the school that produced Utah Jazz player Robert Whaley, accepted transcripts from 17 students - including eight basketball players - with BYU credits over a seven-year period. A ninth, Ricky Clemons, is alleged to have fraudulently completed 24 academic units in a single summer, nine of them from BYU, according to a federal criminal indictment.