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UNC men’s program appears off the hook, but questions linger

UNC received a second notice of allegations that did not include the men’s basketball program

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On Monday, the University of North Carolina received a second Notice of Allegations from the NCAA regarding the lengthy, tangled, complicated, dispiriting investigation into its Afro-American Studies department. This second document is officially called an “amended” notice, but as UNC’s athletic director made clear during a conference call later in the day, this is no amendment. This is a replacement, and from the school’s standpoint, a dramatic improvement. You don’t have to cup your ear to hear the sighs of relief coming from Chapel Hill.

Sure, the women’s basketball program is going to get hammered, and it’s always disquieting when an athletic department is charged with committing the twin, intentionally vague sins of failure to monitor and lack of institutional control. But let’s be honest, the vast majority of people following this case are concerned exclusively with how it will end for the men’s basketball team. And if the letter made public on Monday is any indication, things are bound to end much better than the school and its fans once feared.

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In many respects, there is very little difference between the two NOAs. Each outlines five Level One (the most serious) violations directed at the same three individuals. In both notices, the five allegations were confined to women’s basketball. However, the prior notice, which was delivered to the university last May, included an ominous characterization of how the NCAA viewed the nexus between the now-discredited Afro American Studies department and North Carolina’s athletic department. It read:

“The AFRI/AFAM department created anomalous courses that went unchecked for 18 years. This allowed individuals within ASPSA to use these courses through special arrangements to maintain the eligibilty of academically at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.”

Now take a gander at how this same section reads in version two:

“Specifically, the AFRI/AFAM department created anomalous courses that were available to the general student body and went unchecked for at least six years. As a result of the institution’s obligation and ability to provide academic support services to student-athletes, and as a result of the relationships between the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) and the AFRI/AFAM department, student-athletes had increased exposure to the anomalous course offerings.”

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Now technically, “18 years” is the same thing as “at least six years,” but that is just semantics. This was an obvious shortening of the time frame, which is significant because it all but eliminates the possibility that the NCAA could vacate North Carolina’s 2005 men’s basketball championship. (Ten players on that team were AFAM majors.) But by far the biggest change is the elimination of the sole reference to the men’s basketball program.

Why the adjustments? Right now, we don’t know. When asked about it during an afternoon conference call with the media, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said it would be up to the NCAA’s investigative staff to provide an answer. The folks who track these matters closely are curious as to what that answer might be. “It appears to be a pretty remarkable pullback,” said Brad Wolverton, who has written extensively about academic fraud cases for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “It’s sort of astounding. This is supposedly one of the biggest academic scandals in the history of college sports, and from all appearances we’ve narrowed this case down to women’s basketball.”

If the pullback amounts to a sharpening of how the NCAA defines its missions as it relates to academic fraud, then it will have far-reaching ramifications. After the Penn State debacle, the NCAA is less inclined to overstep its bounds. No one is disputing that the AFAM Studies courses were illegitimate. The question is whether it is the responsibility of a school’s athletic personnel to determine that, and therefore, whether the NCAA’s enforcement division should punish sports programs for failing to do so. Notice, for example, the NCAA’s use of the word “anomalous” to describe those classes. The authors of the notice could have used more incendiary words like “fraudulent” or “phony,” but they chose the path of least resistance. That is no accident.

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Furthermore, consider that the notices did not cite North Carolina’s athletics department for creating “anomalous” classes or even encouraging academically struggling athletes to take them. If that were the case, then every college in America would be in violation. No, the specific wrongdoing that has bitten UNC athletics now consists of 18 occasions in which the women’s basketball academic counselor provided improper help to players. That is all. Two violations were committed by members of the AFAM Studies department because they refused to be interrogated. (Can you blame them?) The final two were the failure to monitor and lack of institutional control charges. That’s a lot of jeopardy resulting from 18 instances of too much term-paper help.

Monday’s developments will undoubtedly frustrate those who were hoping that Roy Williams’s basketball program would face the same stiff penalties that others have sustained the last few years: coach suspension, postseason ban, vacating wins and/or championships, etc. We can’t say for sure, but it is hard to imagine a team getting penalized so harshly when it isn’t even mentioned in a notice of allegations. This case has dragged on for a long while. It has besmirched a proud university and ensnared one of the most prominent programs in the history of college sports. The end is finally in sight, but the questions are just beginning.