Never in history has there been an NCAA investigation like the one that is (still) ongoing at the University of North Carolina. Now, six years after the initial investigation began, it appears that the school will finally have its day in NCAA Court on August 14th.

The outcome will almost certainly have a huge impact on UNC and on college athletics – one way or the other.

The basic premise of the investigation is this: During a period that might have been as long as 18 years (!!) dating from 1993, numerous Carolina athletes were involved in sham classes in the African and Afro-American studies department.

In all, according to reporting done by the Raleigh News & Observer and an independent report sanctioned by UNC, about 3,100 students participated in the sham classes. Roughly half were scholarship athletes and many – most – were either football or basketball players.

The classes, according to the reports, never met and the work required was absolutely minimal – if there was any work done at all. Regardless of the outcome of the NCAA case, the entire debacle has been humiliating for one of the best schools in the country. It was so bad that in 2015, Carolina was placed on probation by the North Carolina Accrediting Agency for academic institutions.

Of course that had no affect on the football or – more importantly – basketball teams.

Many schools who are investigated by the NCAA plea bargain. They self-impose sanctions in the hope that the NCAA will be lenient with them. Often, it works. Not always though: Louisville self-imposed a one-year postseason ban in 2016 in the wake of the “madam” scandal in its athletic dorm and was shocked last month when the NCAA came back and said that wasn’t enough. Now, the school is holding its breath, concerned that it might be stripped of its 2013 national basketball title. If so, it would be the first team ever stripped of a basketball title. In the past, the NCAA has been more than willing to strip Final Four appearances, but never a national championship.

If you ask people involved in college athletics, the Carolina scandal goes well beyond bringing hookers into a dormitory or even paying off athletes. About the only thing that might be considered even close is shaving points.

In short, there has never been an academic scandal like this – at least as far as anyone knows.

Even so, Carolina has chosen not to take the plea-bargain route. It has fought the NCAA at every turn. And still is.

Earlier this week, UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham – who wasn’t at the school when the scandal was unfolding but walked into it when he arrived in 2011 – gave a lengthy interview to CBS’s Dennis Dodd. Cunningham said a lot of things to Dodd but his argument boils down to this: We should be let off on the basis of technicalities.

This is the key Cunningham comment in the Dodd interview: “Is this academic fraud? Yes, it is by a normal person’s standard. But not by the NCAA’s definition.”

In short: Yes, we’re guilty, but we should be let off because evidence was mishandled or a warrant wasn’t served properly. Cunningham went on to claim that the NCAA had “over-charged” UNC.

First of all, prosecutors almost always overcharge. That’s one way to get a plea bargain: “We’ll drop the murder charge to manslaughter if you plead guilty.” Happens in cop-and-lawyer shows all the time; happens in real life, too.

More important, though, is Cunningham, for all intents and purposes, challenging the NCAA’s right to punish Carolina for academic fraud. Where and how the NCAA can punish has always been a debatable question.

When the Jerry Sandusky scandal unfolded at Penn State, NCAA President Mark Emmert came charging in on his white horse, banning Penn State football from postseason play for five years and fining the school $60 million. Emmert was roundly criticized for over-stepping, the postseason ban was reduced to two years, and the fine was reduced, too. UNC is pointing to that example as a reason why the NCAA should not “over-punish” after already “over-charging.”

Except the two cases are apples and oranges. Sandusky committed a series of horrific crimes, but there is nothing in the NCAA rule-book governing those crimes. He hadn’t been employed by the school for 13 years when he was arrested. Emmert used the NCAA catch-all lack of institutional control to nail Penn State and there isn’t much doubt that Penn State failed to control Sandusky when it had information that he was sexuality assaulting young boys.

Awful as Sandusky was, his crimes did not have anything to do with academics. In his comments to Dodd, Cunningham responds to the NCAA’s claim that UNC “leveraged a relationship” with Nyang’oro and Crowder to keep athletes eligible.

Cunningham conceded that they did that, but goes on to say, “Happens every day.”

He then uses the example of the athletic department “leveraging a relationship” with the business school to start a class on leadership that members of North Carolina’s “student-athlete advisory board” could take.

That example is exactly the reason why the NCAA MUST punish UNC heavily. If you are going to claim that those who represent you in sports are “student-athletes,” then you cannot turn around and say the NCAA does not have the right to sanction you for academic fraud.

If the day comes when the NCAA abandons the sham of the “student-athlete” and simply pays athletes in revenue sports, then fine, no need to worry about academics. Make it elective for players to take classes and work towards graduation. Basically, that’s the concept behind the “one-and-done” rule for basketball players.

But, as of this moment, the NCAA and all its member schools – including athletic directors like Cunningham – are still claiming that their players are “student-athletes.” If that’s the case, if those two things are entwined, then academic fraud is absolutely within the umbrella of NCAA discipline.

And, if your only argument against the current charges is that you ARE guilty but should be let off on a technicality, then you should be punished to the max. Remember, NCAA court is NOT a court of law. One does not have to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Cunningham has already admitted guilt on behalf of the school.

If the NCAA lets UNC off with a wrist slap: loss of a few scholarships; a probation without sanctions; in fact, anything short of stripping at least one national title, it may very well face some kind of an uprising from other schools – led by Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut, and others that have been punished in the recent past for crimes not comparable to those that took place in Chapel Hill.

The team that will be most affected if a serious penalty is handed down is, clearly, the basketball team – if only because the football team hasn’t won anything that really mattered since Choo-Choo Justice played there. Losing a Belk Bowl trophy wouldn’t bother too many people.

But losing a national championship – or two – would bother a lot of people. Roy Williams who, for the record, is a friend of mine and someone I admire and respect, has said repeatedly that “We did nothing wrong.”

That’s entirely possible. Williams was an assistant coach at Carolina until 1989, when he left to coach at Kansas. He returned in 2003 as head coach long after the fraudulent system was in place. You can make the argument that he SHOULD have known at some point, but it is certainly possible that he did not.

Unfortunately, that’s irrelevant right now. The only question is whether academic fraud took place. The athletic director says it did. Which is why Carolina’s punishment must be harsh for the NCAA to retain what little credibility it has left.

John Feinstein’s most recent book, ‘The Legends Club,’ spent eight months on the New York Times hardcover and paperback bestseller lists. His new non-fiction book, “The First Major—Inside the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be published in October. It can be ordered online now as can his new kids mystery, “Backfield Boys,” scheduled for publication in late August.

Comments (33)
  1. Stephen Hill says:

    “Of course that had no affect on the football or – more importantly – basketball teams.” EFFECT

  2. I went to college. There were classes that required no work and sometimes no attendance. You , a student, found out about them from certain groups. So if you signed up before the class was full you had an easy class. And yes athletes passed this easy class info on to their teammates.Sometimes I signed up for the easy course before the athletes and they did not get the easy class.My academic advisor had to approve the courses I took but his was a rubber stamp approval.Mine was a small school and you tell me Mr Williams should have known easy Mega school UNC— BALONEY!
    Yes, athletes could have taken the easy classes in droves, just listen to the upper class-men for easy class info and be first to sign up And yes an advisor would sometimes tell you to take a different instructor because the one you were slated for gave mostly Ds.and I was no athlete.
    At Mega UNC,which I do not especially like, believing R Williams should have known the details on no work classes is pure fantasy.
    My son just saw my post and said” oh at Georgia we had a key that told which classes were less hard”
    Ask your kids or remember your college years. There were no work classes then and there are now–EVERYWHERE. I believe most schools in our wonderful computer age have a listing for every instructor showing percentage of letter grades given. What is that but enabling easy class choice? Every school has no work classes and you have to decide if you want to take them. If I were an athlete I would stand in line to get them!

  3. Art Stetson says:

    And it should be noted that Feinstein attended Duke and used his position at the Washington Post to write shamelessly biased pro-Duke articles for years. I’ll take this latest article with a big grain of salt.

  4. Unc’s only argument isn’t we’re guilty and should be let off on a technicality. John, that’s lazy and simplistic writing on your part. The argument is the fraud classes weren’t an extra benefit for athletes as the classes were open for all students. The reason there were more athletes in the class was because groups of friends talk and share information. The NCAA would have to somehow prove a conspiracy theory that the class was started specifically for athletes. Otherwise they’re overstepping their bounds getting into an academic issue. Just because there’s outrage like yours and you want to hit something, just like in the Penn State cade, doesn’t mean you have the right or ability to do so. Unc did not break any Ncaa rule. If the schools you mentioned athlectic departments howl should Unc get off, then thete presidents should howl just as loudly should unc get convicted because it would mean that the ncaa just grabbed some more power.

  5. actually unc’s last 3 titles should be stripped.If they had been punished in a timely and fair manner,they would not have been in position to last year’s title that was also helped by atrocious officiating throughout their tournament run.

    1. you as a student or an athlete are free to take courses available at the schools it is your choice as an individual , nothing is mandated,has nothing to do with athletics it’s a university issue not a sports issue, that’s what everyone seems to be missing, NOT AND NCAA ISSUE

    2. jonathantrex says:

      To the Duke graduate Mr. Feinstein… Should the NCAA drop the hammer on Duke for steering their athletes to no-show classes of dubious value?

  6. The NCAA can NOT GOVERN the classes within an university, that is in the NCAA RULE BOOK…..It’s already been put out about this so the NCAA has NO CASE against UNC for this because the school rules over the classes and therefore NCAA should NOT make any judgement’s against them !!

  7. Correction – Penn State’s initial bowl ban was 4 years, not 5.

  8. Sonney Dey says:

    When did they quit making regular Michelob beer? 😦

  9. You missed Cunningham’s argument, slightly… He does admit that “academic fraud” took place, but he argues that the classes were open to the whole student body, therefore it is an academic issue, not an athletic issue.

    1. What Bubba fails to address is that emails show that course sections of the no show classes were created at the behest of a glorified secretary in the athletics department to accommodate revenue sport athletes in danger of becoming ineligible. That is all the NCAA need demonstrate to show improper benefits to athletes.

  10. College sports is very close to the edge. The ruling body (NCAA) must make the television audience, the paying customer at games, and the booster or alum understand that they are in control and will not tolerate cheating of any type. Make the playing fields level. If not the television ratings will drop and with that so will the revenue. I suggest looking at NASCAR as an example. Just a few years ago it was prime time television. Now, they struggle to draw a crowd. Poor decisions from the leadership is a death sentence. College sports are becoming dominated by several schools that have clearly established anything goes mentalities for their athletes and fans. For example the Kentucky fans made serious threats against an official during last years final four. That same official made many very unusual calls appearing to favor the other team. I want to watch good amateur sports, played by student athletes on a level playing field. If the NCAA does not provide that and fails to “hammer” the cheaters, well I for one will gladly…CHANGE THE CHANNEL.

  11. David Helton says:

    Two errors in the first paragraph–1) It has been 7 years not 6, and 2) the COI hearing is Aug 16-17. You’re better than that John. (Must be that Durham education)

  12. Craig Cox says:

    It is sad that someone with Feinstein’s education and reach is so out of touch with this issue. The NCAA can posture all they want and hide the real issue at hand with a lot of window dressing, but at the end of the day, this will likely be decided in a court of law with both the NCAA and Feinsteins searching for towels to get the egg of their face.

  13. Don Efird says:

    UNC class. No class schedule. No attendance required. No lecture or guest lecture present. No reading requirement. No test or final exam. Only requirement for Grade of “A” was a one page paper written by tutor or advisor! Basketball, football and baseball players academically ineligible and regular students ineligible for graduation. Sledgehammer must be used or end NCAA! “Nothing to see here, it will all be over by Friday!”

  14. Maybe Mr. Fensteina nd Jay Bilas should get together. Who died and left this guy in charge? And the Raleigh N&O is just good mullet wrapping who hates UNC and love NCSU.

    1. BobLee Says says:

      Mr Caviness: Just for the record, the Executive Editor of The N&O – John Drescher – is a graduate of UNC J-School and former editor of The Daily Tar Heel. As for “loving NCSU”… every living alumnus of NCSU holds the N&O largely responsible for “taking out Jim Valvano”.
      … In general I share your dislike of The N&O but for different reasons.

  15. BobLee Says says:

    I am a UNC alum who is “estranged” from my alma mater over this and other issues… a key factor in the arrogant indignation from UNC loyalists over “this” is that for multi-generations so much of their own self-images were invested in the myth of “The Carolina Way” as manufactured and sold by Dean Smith. It was under Smith’s watch that this scam was born in 1992. … If the Humpty Dumpty of The Carolina Way is shattered, it cannot be “put back together again”.

    UNC alums are certainly not the only alum/fans to believe in a myth of their College Athletics (FB/ MBB) piety. …. EVERYONE CHEATS – BUT US!

  16. As noted above, this story is filled with factual errors. So as not to be redundant, two others I noted were, one, the interview with Dodd took place in February and, two, the NCAA just admitted that it was not about the rigor/structure of the courses. I swear if he wasn’t a Dookie, I’d think this guy was an idiot; instead, I think it’s simply vitriol despite all of his assurances that Roy is a really good guy.

  17. I’m fully prepared to be upset by the punishment handed down, just like every other one of late. When determining what manner of punishment to hand down, you have to ask yourself, if you went back and told everyone involved in those championship runs that they would suffer X punishment, would they have acted differently. None of the recent punishments handed down, whether it be Louisville, the Patriots, etc, in my opinion, made the violations not worth doing.

    I don’t understand how the “stripping of titles” helps anything. They still played the games and won. You could re-write the record books and tell everyone that every single UNC championship is vacated, and they will still draw the best athletes and coaches in the country, and they will still get millions from their media deals, because the games and the wins happened.

    Make an example. When the next team wants to bring in hookers, make up grades, give guys cars, give them a reason to pause before doing it.

  18. Joe Black says:

    Good, unbiased article that must have been plagiarized from the RN&O. Like the others, innuendos, overstatements, personal conclusions and no research on college classwork. To even try to make a comparison, or better yet try to establish guilt by association, with the Penn State issue is nearly criminal and offensive to those people who have suffered due to Child Predator molestation. You tried to make it sound that Cunningham admits that the school directed this activity for the benefit of the athletics, which is patently untrue and borders on a lie. Your article was nothing more than another hit piece from someone that wants to See UNC go down in flames. You obviously, believe all of the overstatements and made up conclusions the RN&O spew. The conclusion that you and others have come up with are not born out of fact, but of an elicit desire. I’m not going to argue that these few classes, and there were just a few of tehm, weren’t fake, but what I will argue is that they were used to give athletes an easy path to graduation and keep players eligible. That is an erroneous conclusion, not backed up by facts.
    And, you neglect to carry your hateful thoughts out to a conclusion. If the NCAA does win this, and they might, The will become the Academic Police and will then have to sit in judgement of every college class that is available for any Student Athlete in any NCAA school. I hope everyone is prepared for that! That is the results of this going against UNC, unless they just enforce something that isn’t within their domain anyway, then the NCAA becomes an organization similar to the Federal Government and just make up the rules as they go along and as it befits them. Just ask Jay Bilas! Why hasn’t anyone Questiones all “Independent Study” classes on college campuses? Sure UNC isn’t the only one that has them. My God, what about the “Play Ground Director” degree, aka Recreation, that NCSU gives out to athletes? Why hasn’t the RN&O brought that up? It’s all in your agenda!

  19. 7 years of backpedaling by the NCAA over a case that the AD admitted was academic fraud. Nothing more than the NCAA guaranteeing the continuous flow of money from the media and marketing of UNC basketball. Any other lower level program would have decimated by the NCAA in a matter of months. Good try by all you UNC apologists.

  20. Dave Ogden says:

    I can’t believe those who can defend the actions of the University of North Carolina. This is academic fraud at its worst with the sole purpose of keeping (student) athletes eligible. This is the one instance where the NCAA must act decisively. UNC should be stripped of all NCAA titles won during this period and pay a price for its arrogance. I realize the NCAA is gun shy over the Penn State issue (which was a criminal case and they had no jurisdiction) but this is exactly what they should be enforcing.

  21. dook BB players should get their degree credit from North Carolina Central University. Players take many/most of their courses at NCCU. The rigor comparison of dook to NCCU is silly. Many universities, including the pious NCSU & Nebraska (where the lead NCAA investigator came from) teach classes taught by coaches limited to enrollment of athletes, for academic credit. Tennessee has a course in hospitality, massively enrolled by football players, that teaches chair arranging for credit. And the NCAA wants to charge LOIC by UNC? UNC never offered a course limited to athletes or taught by coaches so becomes the poster child again for doing things right.

    The classes may be easy but they were never a fraud. When Weinstein hired an outside agency to examine the 20+ page thesis papers which were required of everyone, found more than 40% met an extreme example of acceptable value judged by academic experts for 3 credit hours.

    60% were found to have cut & paste errors for attribution but all were significant documents.

    The NCAA has conceded the classes were not fraudulent and are outside their lane and the academic national accreditation agency responsible has satisfied themselves that UNC is certified. No student, not a single one, that passed had credit hours removed.

    Let’s examine every university in the NCAA for easy courses. Let’s use a sliding scale of academic rigor. Again, UNC will come out smelling like a rose. Every school has easy courses. What do you think a department anywhere does if enrollment lags? They offer a crip course to get enrollment raised.

    Did you know that academic support available to every student in every school isn’t allowed for athletes. These are at-risk kids that were enrolled at schools like dook (remember when Dean exposed the white kids at dook had lower SAT scores than the black kids at UNC dook fans taunted with, JR can’t read) who need extra help? They are working a 40 hour week and expected to take an academic load to graduate. Regular students can have a tutor mark on their papers and exchange emails with a work product. That is not available to NCAA athletes. Just one example of the mess the NCAA created.

    This is a great example of how folks write when they are uninformed about their subject matter. Don’t reach a conclusion by bias.

  22. By letting this situation go on this long any penalty imposed by NCAA will look like a witch hunt. The NCAA should have addressed this years ago. By not doing so gives the impression that NC is getting preferential treatment.

  23. Bj Stolz says:

    Well OF COURSE the classes were open to non-athletes. If you are trying to cheat and not get caught, it would be a little too obvious to have “athletes only” fake classes! That is the lamest excuse ever. It is clear these classes were created and maintained i to keep the athletes eligible. The fact that other students could take them is part of the cover — why else would UNC tolerate sham classes at such a quality university?

  24. Does it really matter the university of North Carolina is run by people that should be fired . All there worried about is basketball trophes. They need to get the prioritys straight in NC is this a school of a institution for criminal activity

  25. I grew up in Chicago. Most the high profile players from the Chi area get $$$ and they work the system when it comes to class. Whether it’s Derrick Rose, Corey Maggette, Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis etc all those players either had help academically or got straight up paid to go to college. All this stuff happens everywhere but probably not to the degree of the school itself offering bogus classes but players getting their work done by aids and tutors and stuff

  26. John Shreve says:

    This reads like a former Duke student, who’s been assigned to write a persuasive essay. Being that you seem completely unfamiliar with the situation, you probably should have done some research before writing this.

    Let me quote Jay Bilas, Duke alum:

    Jay Bilas says the NCAA is so determined to punish North Carolina that it’s breaking its own rules to do so.

    Bilas – a former Duke basketball player who now works with ESPN – said there’s never been a situation like the one at UNC, where university officials allegedly used fraudulent classes to keep players eligible. But Bilas thinks the NCAA has stepped out of line.

    “They’re breaking their own rules to try to punish North Carolina because they don’t like this …” said Bilas, who’s hosting a basketball camp this weekend in Charlotte. “You can’t just violate the rules because you don’t like something.”

    NCAA rules intentionally don’t cover academic matters like UNC’s, Bilas said, because university presidents don’t want the NCAA to govern their classrooms. But a limited rulebook doesn’t excuse unlimited jurisdiction.

    “A rules-based organization cannot break its own rules to get the result that it wants,” Bilas said.

    Bilas said the NCAA’s committee on infractions has taken unprecedented actions in the UNC case, overriding its own rules and demonstrating conflicts of interest along the way.

    “They’ve shown themselves as wanting to do anything they can to achieve a certain result,” he said. “No committee has ever done what this committee has done in prosecuting the case.”

  27. Jay Bilas: “The NCAA Has No Case” Against UNC
    The ESPN analyst questions the NCAA’s jurisdiction with regards to UNC.

    Ross Martin – 3 hours ago 8

    Jay Bilas discussed UNC and the NCAA ahead of the Committee of Infractions hearing. (Photo: Rich Barnes, USA TODAY Sports)
    ESPN College Basketball analyst Jay Bilas is an fervent opponent to many aspects of the NCAA. From paying college athletes to the selection process for NCAA tournament teams, Bilas is a consistent outspoken voice.

    Another case that Bilas, who is also an attorney, has paid particular attention to is the NCAA’s investigation of the University of North Carolina for the AFAM classes and alleged extra benefits.

    Bilas went on the David Glenn Show on Thursday to provide his opinion on the case as UNC is set to meet with Committee on Infractions later this month.

    “I was making Carolina’s argument before they ever made it, from the very beginning of the thing,” Bilas said on Thursday. “You don’t have to be a legal genius, which I am certainly not, in order to spot that the NCAA has no jurisdiction here and they have no case here. Because the NCAA is not alleging that North Carolina committed academic fraud. In fact the term academic fraud or academic misconduct can be found nowhere in the notices of allegations that they put out.”

    IC’s Greg Barnes: UNC, NCAA Sparring Over Bylaw Interpretation

    The issue, according to Bilas, is that the NCAA has no jurisdiction over academic matters and should only be concerned with whether or not extra benefits were given to athletes.

    “The NCAA admits that it has no business in any school’s curriculum, in academic rigor,” the former Duke forward said on the David Glenn Show. “So they are not saying that any of these course are fraudulent. It’s a question of an extra benefit. So did the university have special arrangements for athletes to get into these classes?

    “First of all, there are special arrangements for athletes to get into classes all the time, all over the place. That happens everywhere.

    “An extra benefit means something prohibited that is not generally available to the rest of the students. These classes (at UNC) were specifically available to everybody. In fact half of the enrollees were not athletes. So this is not even an extra benefit.”

    What North Carolina did was wrong, Bilas says, but legally the NCAA has no case.

    “The whole thing is built on a theoretical house of cards,” he said. “People hear this and they go ‘wait a minute, what happened there was wrong.’ I agree it was absolutely wrong, absolutely wrong, but the NCAA doesn’t have any jurisdiction over it…The NCAA intentionally made these rules this way. The presidents came and told the NCAA office and said ‘stay out of our curriculum, stay out of academic rigor…stay out of our classes, and stay out of our classwork.’

    “So according to NCAA rules this is not academic fraud. I may not like it and you may not like it, but that’s the way it is.

    “A rules-based organization doesn’t get to break its own rules because it doesn’t like something. That is not the way the world works. The NCAA is going to have to tread very carefully in fashioning penalties and I think they have already decided to do that. If they overdo this like they did with Penn State or some others, Carolina will win in Federal Court.”

    Listen to David Glenn’s full interview with Jay Bilas here.

    The UNC’s Committee on Infractions hearing is scheduled for Aug. 16-17 in Nashville, Tenn. UNC basketball coach Roy Williams, football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell will join athletic director Bubba Cunningham and other school officials at the hearing.

    The NCAA typically delivers its infractions report and announces any potential penalties 8-12 weeks after the hearing.

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