How UNC men’s basketball, football could avoid punishment from NCAA

UNC’s men’s basketball team could avoid punishment. (USATSI)

What a day to be a Tar Heel. Unless you’re women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell.

North Carolina’s women’s basketball program looks like Jerry Tarkanian’s old statement about Kentucky and Cleveland State.

“The NCAA is so mad at North Carolina’s across-the-board academic misconduct over 18 years that it will probably slap another two-year probation on the Tar Heels’ women’s basketball program.”

It’s hard to read the NCAA’s amended notice of allegations against North Carolina released Monday and not think the football and men’s basketball programs will avoid major penalties. There is no longer any specific mention of football or men’s basketball. They have been removed from the previous notice without an explanation.

In the first notice of allegations from May 2015, the NCAA wrote this: “The (African and Afro-American Studies) department created anomalous courses that went unchecked for 18 years. This allowed individuals within (Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes) to use these courses through special arrangements to maintain the eligibility of academically at-risk student athletes, particularly in the sports of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.”

Today? The only sport specifically mentioned in the five Level I violations is women’s basketball. Monday’s document is the notice of allegations that will be used moving forward, NCAA spokeswoman Emily James confirmed. James said the NCAA could not comment on specifics about the case due to confidentiality rules.

Now, it’s always possible that allegation Nos. 4 and 5 could still involve football and men’s basketball because they address the broader issue of failing to monitor. But it’s not the NCAA’s way lately to punish a team that’s not named in the notice of allegations.

Under the NCAA’s new enforcement guidelines, the association is supposed to be as detailed as it can when supporting allegations. The idea is don’t describe allegations in a macro way; do them with specifics so the details support the overriding lack of institutional control.

Since the NCAA doesn’t specifically mention football and men’s basketball, I would be surprised to see them get any type of significant punishment at this point. And if football and men’s basketball are off the hook, get ready for a firestorm throughout college sports about what exactly the NCAA’s purpose is and why it can’t prove cases.

No matter how much progress NCAA enforcement has made in academic fraud cases, North Carolina has been the major case college sports has been watching for years. It’s been a drip, drip, drip of when/if the NCAA will actually investigate, what the actual allegations will be, and what the penalties could be down the road. It’s fitting the NCAA provided this notice on the same day as more news in Deflategate with Tom Brady. These are the stories that will never end.

North Carolina will never say that it’s thrilled by this notice of allegations, but all things being considered, it must be happy. The university quickly released the amended notice of allegations — the school waited two weeks for the first notice — and got athletic director Bubba Cunningham on a conference call with the media. Obviously, he showed no glee because, after all, there are still five major allegations.

Again, it’s a tough day to be Sylvia Hatchell.

When Cunningham was asked if he has more confidence now that football and men’s basketball aren’t subject to sanctions, he replied, “As I mentioned, we have five allegations and speculating on sanctions is just something I cannot do. There are five Level 1s — lack of institutional control, failure to monitor. Those are significant charges. I just want to focus on the ones we have in front of us.”

Cunningham said “a lot” of information has been exchanged between North Carolina and the NCAA since the first notice of allegations. What specifically? No one will say yet.

“They ask questions, they measure it against bylaws and their historical precedent, and these are the allegations we’re left with and obligated to respond to,” Cunningham said.

The NCAA’s amended notice of allegations also changed the start date of the fake classes from fall 2002 to fall 2005. So even if basketball is somehow implicated in a broader case against the athletic department, that change of date means North Carolina’s NCAA men’s basketball title in April 2005 is safe. (Did I mention it’s a good day to be a Tar Heel?)

An interesting dynamic with this case is how much the fake classes have been investigated by outside sources. The Raleigh News & Observer and independent investigator Kenneth Wainstein are among those who have looked into it. Heck, the NCAA and North Carolina are currently co-defendants in a lawsuit brought by some former Tar Heels players. How does that lawsuit factor into what the NCAA charges? Who knows? But it’s fair to ask.

Wainstein said in 2014 that he found clear evidence that academic counselors from the football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams asked for players to be enrolled in bogus independent study classes in order for them to be eligible. There was even a PowerPoint presentation football academic counselors gave to the football coaching staff in the fall of 2009 that demonstrated coaches’ knowledge of the academic misconduct.

Wayne Walden, a basketball academic counselor Roy Williams brought to North Carolina from Kansas, told Wainstein’s investigators he worked with former student-services manager Deborah Crowder, a non-faculty member, to get players into the fake classes she organized. Walden told investigators that students enrolled in those classes had no contact with faculty and he thought Crowder was probably doing some of the grading.

Perhaps the NCAA is trying to relearn a lesson from Penn State: Don’t use independent outside reports to make your case; make your own case. That’s a legitimate principle. The problem is the NCAA clearly lacks the teeth to compel people to speak. Wainstein had the power of authorities considering criminal charges against participants in the fake classes. What does the NCAA possibly have to make people trust them and/or compel them to cooperate?

So that leaves the NCAA apparently isolated on an island with North Carolina women’s basketball — which undoubtedly had its share of players take these fake classes. There’s nothing like being a scapegoat for 18 years of fake classes by all kinds of athletes to stay eligible.

Maybe the NCAA will somehow lump men’s basketball and football into the penalties. But don’t bet on it after today’s notice.

The NCAA seems to have settled on Cleveland State.


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