North Carolina academic case puts NCAA and its ‘mission’ on trial

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Roy Williams denies accustation that he knew about academic improprieties at UNC. (USATSI)
Roy Williams denies accustation that he knew about academic improprieties at UNC. (USATSI)

Glimpses. That’s all they were. If Scott May saw his son win a national championship 10 years ago it was only because he forced himself.

May — the former Indiana star — walked the innards of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, at the same time his son Sean was leading North Carolina over Illinois in the 2005 national championship game. Dad later explained he was too nervous to watch. Scott’s only connection to the reality on the court were glimpses of concourse televisions.

Strange. Scott remains part of that last undefeated team at Indiana. He mentored Sean who went on to become that year’s Final Four most outstanding player.

Strange, because we now know that at least part of that team was reportedly involved in the biggest academic scandal in NCAA history. A North Carolina independent investigation found that so-called “paper classes” for athletes went back to the Dean Smith era.

As another NCAA tournament starts and with the 10th anniversary of that title next month, the anticipation of North Carolina’s athletic fate intensifies. A star player on that ’05 team, Rashad McCants, told ESPN last year he did not attend a single class in which he received an A in that 2005 spring semester. McCants added that he was “100 percent” sure coach Roy Williams knew about the bogus classes.

In denying McCants’ accusations, Williams told Sports Illustrated, “What Rashad McCants said was not true. As opposed to saying he lied, I’d like to say that what he said is not right.”

Still, that ’05 championship game remains the pivot point of what might be the most significant NCAA investigation since the SMU death penalty.

Academic integrity goes to the heart of the NCAA mission. It is Chapter 1, verse 1 of the association’s Book of Genesis.

Page 4 of the NCAA Manual reads, “… The admission, academic standing and academic progress of student-athletes shall be consistent with the policies and standards adopted by the institution for the student body in general.”

To many, it’s time to prove that decades-old proclamation still means something.

CBSSports.com spoke to several college administrative sources who did not want to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the subject. On various levels, they all agreed:

The entire NCAA enterprise may be on trial with the North Carolina case.

If the school isn’t hammered, then what good is the NCAA Manual? If thousands of athletes being passed through the system isn’t a mockery of the mission, then what is?

Penn State was an unmitigated disaster. The Miami investigation was a mismanaged mess. The NCAA is still in court almost five years after USC was decided.

McCants and former UNC football player Devon Ramsay have sued saying the school and NCAA have broken a promise to give athletes an education “in spectacular fashion.”

The suit comes down a basic criticism of the NCAA model. All those lofty graduation rates proclaimed each year? There’s a difference between getting a degree and getting an education.

NCAA enforcement reopened the case in June after media reports — mostly from the Raleigh News & Observer — detailed the wrongdoing.

It’s now time to consider no Division I men’s basketball champion has ever had its title vacated. The scope and breadth of the North Carolina investigation certainly seems to puts that ’05 title in question. Syracuse was allowed to keep its 2003 title in a scandal that seems to be a prelude to the North Carolina verdict.

Jim Boeheim avoided a possible long-term suspension basically because of fortunate timing. Most likely the North Carolina case will be evaluated by the same standard, the previous enforcement model.

The scandal remains, raw and painful, hovering over the Tar Heels’ appearance in this year’s tournament. If McCants is accurate, he would have been competing while ineligible. Whistleblower Mary Willingham told the News & Observer five members of that team were involved, four key players.

It would then be up to the NCAA infractions committee to consider the worth of that ’05 championship banner hanging in the Dean Dome. Sean May told ESPN.com he is disagreed with McCants’ assertion that academic misappropriation was widespread.

“I had to write 25-page papers for independent study,” May told the website. He graduated in 2009. The academic wrongdoing concluded in 2011.

But if that title is vacated (or forfeited), Scott May’s concourse walk 10 years ago would be prescient. It would be like the game never happened.

“It’s got so many unique elements,” Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said of the investigation. “I’m not in any way discounting the magnitude. But it is a unique circumstance of the core misdeeds occurring on the academic side of the university clearly benefitted athletics but didn’t seem in its initial phase to have been requested by or instigated by athletics.”

True, the master puppeteer in the scandal seems to be a former student services manager whose loyalty was to disenfranchised students. But approximately half of those students were athletes in a scandal that spans 18 years. Large portions of those athletes were football and men’s basketball players.

A key phrase in Carolina’s independent report seems to tie in an athletic influence. Due to “push back” from North Carolina Academic Support Program for Student Athletes, Debby Crowder “improvised” the bogus independent study classes.

That support program answered to the College of Arts and Sciences but, the report said, was “always under pressure to maintain student-athlete eligibility.”

In the broad history of enforcement, lack of knowledge has never been much of an excuse. In case after case, coaches, administrators — the NCAA has concluded — should have known of wrongdoing.

That it went on for 18 years at North Carolina begs the question: If administrators and coaches didn’t know, why not?

These questions come at a time when NCAA involvement itself is being questioned. At some point in autonomy, the Power 5 commissioners will take up the worth of enforcement. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said last year the division was “overmatched.”

It has already been suggested that enforcement may be handed over to an outside third party. One Power 5 administrator even questioned the NCAA’s influence in academic fraud cases.

If they were handled on campus, he said, the alleged violation would go to an integrity oversight committee. In NCAA cases, they are usually handed over immediately to the university’s general counsel.

“Why?” the administrator said rhetorically. “The only answer is, it’s a student-athlete. The NCAA rules require it. The school doesn’t require it.

“We’ve got to be very careful about subjecting one group of students [who are athletes] to something very different. First, it becomes public. If somebody related to you or me cheated, they’d probably tell their roommate they have mono and go home for the semester.”

Academic fraud has always been tricky proposition for the NCAA. Historically, the NCAA shied away from telling schools what classes or grades they could offer.

The NCAA said in January it had 20 active academic fraud cases working. Now it’s a question of what that means … for North Carolina, for the NCAA, for the entire enterprise.

“Academic integrity is more important to every university in this country [than] anything relating to athletics,” Swarbrick said. “So when the NCAA wants to review, second guess, seek different results relating to [an] honor code or academic situation that’s a really tricky dynamic.”

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