Even though the investigation into North Carolina’s academic fraud scandal has spanned almost four years and produced an unprecedented three notices of allegations, the question at the heart of it has always been astonishingly simple.
Is this any of the NCAA’s business?
Were the bogus African-American Studies courses at the center of the scandal strictly an accreditation issue since they were available to all North Carolina students and not just athletes? Or do the disproportionate number of men’s basketball and football players enrolled in those classes show that athletic department personnel provided extra benefits by steering academically at-risk athletes to courses where they could receive passing grades with little to no work?
The surprisingly lenient ruling handed down by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions on Friday makes it readily apparent which argument panel members favored. The committee announced it “could not conclude that the University of North Carolina violated NCAA academic rules” and did not levy any significant penalties against the Tar Heels.
“While student-athletes likely benefited from the courses, so did the general student body,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, the panel’s chief hearing officer. “Additionally, the record did not establish that the university created and offered the courses as part of a systemic effort to benefit only student-athletes.”
That North Carolina escaped punishment is a massive victory for the Tar Heels and glaring evidence of the NCAA’s impotence in policing college athletics. This was widely considered the worst academic scandal in college sports history, yet the NCAA’s enforcement division could not assemble a strong enough case to convince the committee on infractions.
North Carolina supporters feared the worst as the committee’s decision approached: Postseason bans and the vacation of past victories in various sports. The most significant achievements in jeopardy were the Tar Heels’ 2005 and 2009 men’s basketball national championships given the number of players from both team enrolled in the African-American Studies courses in question.
Hours before North Carolina plans to hang a banner commemorating its 2017 national title at its annual Midnight Madness celebration on Friday night, the Tar Heels learned the two previous banners won’t have to come down. The only punishment the infractions panel handed down was a five-year show-cause penalty for the former chair of the African-American Studies department for failing to cooperate during the investigation.
The committee on infractions ruling is the culmination of a long and contentious standoff between North Carolina and the NCAA. It was more than six years ago that the Raleigh News & Observer uncovered examples of prominent athletes benefiting from academic fraud in North Carolina’s African-American Studies Department, prompting a university-commissioned investigation into the sham classes.
What the Wanstein Report revealed was that African-American Studies Department Chair Dr. Julius Nyang’oro and staff member Debby Crowder organized paper classes from 1993-2011 with the intent of benefitting struggling students and especially athletes. More than 3,100 students received subpar instruction and high grades that often had little to do with the quality of their work.
Sparking the NCAA’s interest was that athletes accounted for a disproportionately high percentage of the enrollments in the paper classes. The Wanstein Report indicated that 47.4 percent of enrollees were athletes even though athletes make up just over 4 percent of North Carolina’s undergraduate student body. About 69 percent of the athletes enrolled were either football players or men’s or women’s basketball players.
The NCAA had a difficult time applying its rules to the case, issuing three different notices of allegations of varying degrees of harshness. In each of the notices, the NCAA built its argument around allegations of impermissible benefits for athletes instead of focusing on the actual academic misconduct that is traditionally the domain of accrediting agencies.
Many schools under NCAA investigation will self-impose sanctions in an effort to either hasten or reduce the actual penalties handed down by the committee on infractions. North Carolina did none of that, instead taking a defiant stance that the classes in question were no more available to athletes than regular students and because of that, there was no preferential treatment given.
As the case has dragged on, North Carolina has enjoyed some tremendous moments on the basketball floor, falling at the buzzer to Villanova in the 2016 national title game and then gaining redemption by edging Gonzaga for the national championship last March. That success has only made rival fans more eager for the NCAA to stop dillydallying and give the Tar Heels their comeuppance.
They can keep on waiting. It appears it will never come.
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