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 Sports.com’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.