The New York Times' Pete Thamel examines some unusual academics courseloads for several Auburn athletes.
It's lengthy, so I'll try and condense it to the following:
Several Auburn football players (notably many members of 2004's 13-0 team) took classes with one Professor Thomas Petee. It appears Petee offered classes to many athletes that required little or no classtime, instead providing a certain number of assignments, readings and essays via email or other communications.
Petee defends his approach as legitimate and laborious, but many academic peers question how he could handle such a heavy courseload and why grades were so high for many of his students.
Here's the introduction, I encourage you to read on and make your own judgments.
A graphic popped up on James Gundlach’s television during an Auburn football game in the fall of 2004, and he could not believe his eyes.
One of the university’s prominent football players was being honored as a scholar athlete for his work as a sociology major. Professor Gundlach, the director of the Auburn sociology department, had never had the player in class. He asked the two other full-time sociology professors about the player, and they could not recall having had him either.
So Professor Gundlach looked at the player’s academic files, which led him to the discovery that many Auburn athletes were receiving high grades from the same professor for sociology and criminology courses that required no attendance and little work.
The knee-jerk response is to go "a-ha! gotcha!".
However, this does not appear to be an instance where academic improprieties were extensively orchestrated from within the athletic department. This Petee guy appears to be a rogue professor, and offers at least a somewhat reasonable defense of his behavior (namely, the athletes in fact did a certain amount of work---it wasn't exactly study hall and throwing pencils at the ceiling).
This kind of activity does strike at the heart of college athletics, in that some level of education (even for the best of athletes) should be administered. However I don't find the actions of the Auburn athletes or the professor (based only on what is presented in this article) to be particularly egregious. The players appear to have done some reading and essay-writing along with meetings with Mr. Petee. They do appear to have been given more credits than they deserved, and that needs to be further analyzed by Auburn's academic departments.
Auburn's fault lies more in not recognizing this questionable conduct earlier.
Other early reaction: