Why do I sense a sigh of relief from UNC coming out of Chapel Hill?

There's nothing for North Carolina to celebrate but maybe UNC can at least breathe. (USATSI)
There’s nothing for North Carolina to celebrate but maybe UNC can at least breathe. (USATSI)

It’s true. Maybe not all of it — and maybe not the juiciest stuff — but it’s enough. North Carolina was running a degree mill — or something close to it.

Thursday’s damning Notice of Allegations from the NCAA was the least anticipated news at North Carolina since Michael Jordan’s exit to the NBA.

In what was termed the largest academic fraud case in history, UNC was hit with five allegations of Severe Breach of Conduct. (That’s the NCAA using capital letters to hammer home the point.)

Why, then, do I sense a sigh of relief coming from Chapel Hill?

Sure, it’s a lot, but it isn’t everything. For some, it certainly isn’t enough. Seemingly safe is that 2005 national championship banner. Roy Williams, too. And maybe that’s all anyone at North Carolina cares about.

The NCAA seemed to throw police tape around the scope of the wrongdoing — 10 years instead of 18, as stated by the Ken Wainstein’s thorough external report. The allegations also made little mention of Williams aside from a transcript of his interview.

No mention was made of what is essentially a growing conflict of interest. While the NCAA is prosecuting North Carolina, it is in court fighting former players suing it because of the scandal.

How is it possible for both of those things to be going on at once? The NCAA contends it is not responsible for academic fraud at UNC. Can the association fairly investigate UNC for wrongdoing while being sued by those who allegedly were involved in it?

Part of the answer may be in the allegations themselves. For some reason, the wrongdoing is defined as “extra benefits,” not outright academic impropriety. Semantically, at the least, the NCAA benefits.

It comes off as looking like the largest academic fraud case in history really isn’t.

It would be terrible if these allegations turn out to be nothing more than a legal maneuver favoring the NCAA.

A reminder …

• The NCAA struggles mightily with even defining academic fraud, much less having the stones to investigate it. The membership doesn’t necessarily want the association telling it what courses it can offer and how to grade them. There is a faction of educators out there today who are cheering for UNC.

• The NCAA can throw all the APRs and grad rates they want at us. There’s a difference between a degree and an education. That’s why former women’s basketball player Rashanda McCants and former football player Devon Ramsey filed their suit. In it, they allege an “inferior education.”

The NCAA’s response: Hey, don’t blame us.

What was summarized Thursday was more akin to the old $100 handshake from a booster. A handshake/grade analogy is easier to define than widespread academic fraud.

Remember, the NCAA was basically shamed into coming back on this case a year ago after dropping it. The Wainstein report connected the dots to athletic interests.

Over an 18-year span, about half of the 3,100 students who took those paper classes were athletes. Across the country far and wide, a lot of us were asking, “How could the administration not know what was going on?”

“We were all keeping those kids in [those] classes,” former UNC academic counselor Mary Willingham told CBSSports.com.

The allegations focus on just a few counselors. The most prominent, Debbie Crowder — an avowed Tar Heel fan — is made to look like Jim Tressel. According to the NCAA, Crowder “failed to furnish information relevant to [the] investigation.”

Tressel is the former Ohio State coach accused of misleading the NCAA in TattooGate. Despite being blackballed as a coach, Tressel is now Youngstown State’s president.

Crowder, who retired in 2009, cooperated with Wainstein only when it became evident that criminal charges were coming.

Somewhere in there is a win for both parties.

“Until we get people under oath, we’re not going to get people to tell the truth,” Willingham said. “Even then, they might not tell the truth.”

Call it, then, the Notice of Allegations from not-quite-hell. There’s no juicy center for us to dig into. This coach knew this or this coach knew that. All the principals are either off the hook or out of a job.

What happens next? North Carolina will be hit hard even if a fraction of the allegations hold up before the infractions committee. But despite the NCAA’s threatening language Thursday, remember the school will be subject to the old (more lenient) penalty structure.

More punitive measures didn’t go into effect until 2013. This case ended in 2011.

Williams is seemingly safe. So are former football coaches Butch Davis, John Bunting and (interim) Everett Withers. Poor Larry Fedora, the current coach. The guy inherited this mess.

What penalties hurt the most? Probably some sort of Penn State-like cram down. Bust UNC to the brink of the death penalty. This time, it will be deserved.

What will happen? Probably postseason bans for both major sports. Throw in women’s basketball, too, if you care. Scholarships as well. Some sort of fine.

In the end, this is going to look a lot like USC. Athletes who had absolutely nothing to do with the violations are going to pay for the sins of the past.

That oughta clean things up, right?


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