If you think North Carolina got off easy, you need to see the bigger picture

In early June 2015, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools announced it was placing the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a year’s probation, citing compliance violations in the areas of integrity, control of athletics, program content and several other essential academic matters.

Because SACS is an acronym that is not universally known, because it is engaged in the area of higher education and not operating one of America’s most popular sporting events, its action was not widely acknowledged or understood. But for one of the nation’s top 30 universities to have its accreditation placed under this degree of scrutiny is like having the bank threaten to foreclose on your home if you’re late on one more payment.

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The problem, though: It was only a threat.

If you are outraged by the NCAA’s infractions inaction against North Carolina athletics, you are not alone, but you might be somewhat off-course. I have maintained since these issues became publicly known, near the start of this decade, that the greatest issue in all of this was that a major public university, whose operation is aided by taxpayers at the federal and state level, allowed an entire academic department to operate outside the school’s own standards for an extended period.

However, if you believe it was a bigger deal that the basketball or football team might have been helped to win games by what transpired, you might want to take a good long look at your priorities.

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The problem for the accreditation board is it did not have a vast arsenal of possible punishments at its disposal. There’s no academic equivalent to a postseason ban or reduction of official visits. There was either the removal of accreditation, which would have imperiled the very existence of UNC-CH, or the probation that was prescribed. It didn’t feel like enough, but it was the best they could do.

Was nothing at all the best the NCAA could have done?

Well, OK, Carolina didn’t get nothing from the Infractions Committee.

They did receive a good scolding.

Said Greg Sankey, Southeastern Conference commissioner and infractions committee chair:

“The hearing panel concluded that it is more likely than not that student-athletes received fraudulent credit by the common understanding of what that term means. It is also more likely than not that North Carolina personnel used the courses to obtain and maintain student-athletes’ eligibility.”

“The hearing panel was troubled by North Carolina’s shifting positions” about information in the university-commissioned investigation of this issue commonly known as the Wainstein Report.

“The matter of failure to monitor and lack of institutional control were the subject of significant discussion and debate.”

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He also mentioned on multiple occasions that UNC had accepted the accreditation board’s use of the term “academic fraud” to describe the circumstance. Ultimately, though, the complexity of this case and UNC-CH’s ability to position it as an academic matter rather than an athletic one led to an absence of sanctions against Carolina athletics. And that was probably as it should have been.

The Tar Heels, as a whole, “more likely than not” weren’t chaste in this matter. And they were more fortunate than not that the NCAA, as a whole, could not find a method in its by-laws to reach a defensible finding that would have led to some level of sanctions against them.

“I think it’s important to understand that the panel is in no way supporting what happened,” Sankey said. “What happened was troubling, and I think that’s been acknowledged by many different parties. But the panel applied the members’ by-laws to the facts, albeit at times position shifted and we were skeptical of positions taken, the panel couldn’t conclude violations. That’s reality.”

Since the start of the NCAA’s exploration of this matter, I explained it would be the most complicated case in its history, because the creation and existence of classes that were at best termed “aberrant” would have to be conclusively established as oriented toward the benefit of athletes and Carolina athletics.

This was not an easy task given the presence of a vast number of non-athletes in the courses that were advertised as lecture courses but rarely or never met — that functionally operated as independent studies requiring only a term paper to complete. The buzzer-beating cooperation of former AFAM department secretary Debbie Crowder, who declined to speak to the NCAA for roughly three years produced this information, as Sankey said: “She eventually, credibly, explained to us that she provided a consistent level of assistance to all students.”

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The NCAA’s enforcement division tried on multiple occasions to create a case that could stand up in front of the infractions committee (and, possibly later, a judge or jury). In a rare departure from its standard procedure, the NCAA issued three different notices of allegations to UNC. The reiterations were explained away as procedural in nature, but the fact they changed dramatically each time demonstrated how challenging it was to concoct a coherent, provable case.

You will hear the NCAA at this point described as worthless, toothless, purposeless. You will hear suggestions that any school wishing to (overly) assist its athletes with the challenge of maintaining NCAA-mandated progress toward a degree can simply phony up a course and make sure there are enough non-athletes included to keep the NCAA snoops frustrated. Does anyone really think there are university administrators out there who want to face their own accreditors and defend such a ruse?

“I doubt there’s any university that wants to go through what the University of North Carolina has gone through,” Sankey said, “no matter what the result today.”

No one at North Carolina should celebrate this. If the lawyers who helped produce this result deserve to be treated to a steak dinner for their successful work, people at the school should buy them a gift card to Ruth’s Chris and stay the hell home.

“Sometimes the behavior you’re not proud of doesn’t fit into a by-law,” North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham said at the school’s press conference, and that’s about as fitting a summation as he could have delivered.

Jobs were left or lost, the school’s reputation was impugned on multiple levels for more than half a decade and UNC-CH was one misstep away from possibly generational damage to its operation. That the NCAA could not add to this misery was less a failing than a concession to reality.

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