Harvard says it is taking a recent investigation into widespread cheating very seriously. But sportswriter Peter May says by buffering student athletes, the university is sending a very different message. (AP Photo)

At the end of August, Harvard announced it was investigating as many as 125 undergraduates who “may have committed acts of academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism, on a take-home final exam.”

But two weeks before that announcement, another, more revealing communiqué had circulated through the university community. An e-mail to resident deans from a university official, the secretary of the board charged with investigating the cheating scandal, helpfully suggested that if any of the 125 students under suspicion were athletes playing a fall sport, they might want to consider taking a leave of absence before registering for classes. That way, they would preserve their eligibility even if they were to be found guilty.

This amounted to a very convenient heads-up for any athlete who may have been involved. If any of the athletes were to be found guilty after registering for this academic year, they would forfeit the year of eligibility. By contrast, a guilty athlete with the foresight to take a leave of absence before registering would maintain his eligibility. The athlete would benefit from a university policy that allows a forced withdrawal to coincide with a leave of absence. The student then would be eligible to return next fall.

Basketball co-captain Kyle Casey will reportedly withdraw to protect his fourth and final year of Ivy League eligibility. (AP)

The university has not identified any of the students under suspicion, nor has it commented on numerous published reports that two members of the men’s basketball team took the advice in that e-mail and are now on leaves of absence. A third member of the basketball team, who also plays on the football team, was not in uniform for the Crimson’s opener at Harvard Stadium last Saturday. Football coach Tim Murphy, citing federal laws that protect students’ privacy, said he could not discuss players “who aren’t here.”
“Harvard kids aren’t good kids. They’re great kids. But they don’t walk on water,” Murphy said. “I think it’s important as parents and educators that we have to reinforce that crucial life lesson, that inappropriate behavior won’t be tolerated.”

But what “life lesson” is being communicated when an athlete who cheated on a test and faces suspension gets told in advance by a university official that he can maintain his eligibility by taking a year off? He can then return to the athletic arena the following fall with only a notation on his transcript that he had been required to withdraw for a year. Isn’t the emphasis on athletic eligibility rather than academic integrity misguided? How many athletes even knew of this option prior to that e-mail?

Harvard has had its share of academic miscreants in the past, from the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy to hockey goalie Kyle Richter. The former was suspended after he had a friend take a Spanish exam on his behalf; the latter took the 2008-09 season off due to an academic infraction the university would not identify.

And recent headlines make clear that confusion about what constitutes cheating is not confined to the academic world. Fareed Zakaria, a columnist for Time magazine, apologized for lifting the words of a writer from The New Yorker. Jonah Lehrer torched his fledgling writing career by making up quotes from the likes of Bob Dylan and Raymond Teller of the illusionist team of Penn and Teller.

Harvard kids aren’t good kids. They’re great kids. But they don’t walk on water.

– Harvard Football coach Tim Murphy

“Down the road, later in life, those consequences (from cheating) can be terminal,’’ coach Murphy said. “They can cost you a marriage. They can cost you a career.”

He’s right about that. But in the here and now at Harvard, the consequences can be relatively benign; a year off, a transcript notation, a chance to continue one’s athletic career without penalty.

The men’s basketball team has been picked to repeat as Ivy League champions. Now, facing the possible loss of its two captains, and maybe a third player, it may struggle. But it also stands to be immeasurably better in 2013 if the players all return from their leaves of absences.

To use a basketball term, that almost looks like a slam dunk. But as far as the university’s role in all this is concerned, a football term better applies: It’s the old end-around play.

Related: WBUR’s Bill Littlefield asks, should athlete involvement in Harvard’s cheating scandal change the story?

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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