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NCAA Reverses Course Again, Adds Charges in UNC Academic Fraud Case

UNC's 2005 men's basketball national championship may be in jeopardy.
December 22, 2016, 8:46pm
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In a story that seemingly will never end, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has once again changed its mind about what rules it alleges the University of North Carolina broke in its paper classes scandal.

In a previous notice of allegations, the NCAA went soft on UNC, taking away any mention of wrongdoing by the school's football and men's basketball programs—whose players took many of the fake classes—and instead placed all of the blame on women's basketball. It was a classic example of how NCAA enforcement works: punish the little guy for the sins of the powerful.

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But now, the association apparently has reversed course.

In a new, amended allegations notice, the NCAA writes that "many at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football and men's basketball, used these courses for purposes of ensuring their continuing NCAA academic eligibility." No kidding. UNC whistleblower Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist for Tar Heels athletes, previously has detailed to VICE Sports and in many other forums the significant involvement of football and men's basketball players, and their programs, in a system of academic fraud.

Here's a quick breakdown of what the new NCAA notice means, and the issues it raises going forward:

What should UNC fans worry about?

It's all very bad:

  • Punishments related directly to football and men's basketball are now back on the table. It's too early to speculate about what this will mean, because the NCAA's punishment system is random and makes zero sense. That said, the association wouldn't reintroduce allegations against those programs if it intended to do nothing with them.
  • The allegations now stretch back to the fall of 2002, not the fall of 2005, meaning the Tar Heels' 2005 men's basketball national title could be in jeopardy.
  • This is going to drag out for at least six more months, probably more.

What is the NCAA's stance on academic fraud?

The NCAA purports that its mission is to protect the academic integrity of college sports, but the association takes the easy way out in enforcement, saying it doesn't judge the quality of classes. This is insane, because the NCAA deems players ineligible by judging the quality of their middle school coursework in Africa.

However, for that reason, the NCAA has stayed out of punishing UNC for the fact that its classes were essentially fake, instead focusing on tutors doing the work for the athletes. The latter is considered academic fraud, and it's within the association's self-appointed terrain. Previously, that looked like it might be UNC's saving grace, since this narrow definition of academic fraud wasn't "clear" to the NCAA in every case. However, two things seem to have widened the scope of the association's inquiry:

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In its letter to UNC, NCAA COI panel noted that the university described what happened as "academic fraud" before its own accrediting body.
— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) December 22, 2016

COI panel: But NCAA schools recognize "an appropriate space" for NCAA to address people improperly influencing eligibility or academics.
— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) December 22, 2016

UNC using the term "academic fraud" doesn't bode well for its punishment.

Going forward, is the NCAA going to start judging class quality? Is it going to try to make sure that athletes receive meaningful degrees, as opposed to majoring in eligibility? Will the association begin to police and punish programs and schools that fail along these lines? If so, then how? And if it does, then why didn't it do that before? What makes UNC special? How wide is this "appropriate space?"

The NCAA often argues that athletes can't be allowed to be paid because somehow that would compromise their ability to be educated. It's a laughable notion, with no basis in fact, but federal judges have generally just nodded along. If the association is going to put its mouth where its money is and actually try to do more than pretend to care about academics, it will have to answer some very thorny questions.

All that said, what the hell does the NCAA do?

This was essentially the question from North Carolina's athletic department:

UNC AD Bubba Cunningham says entire NCAA infractions process for everybody needs to be reconsidered.
— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) December 22, 2016

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Let's follow the NCAA's logical course:

  • UNC did something. It looks bad. Let's investigate.
  • Hey, all these people told us that they cheated for men's basketball and football players, and all of these classes were fake. Those are violations.
  • The report done for UNC says the fraud lasted 18 years, but we're only counting until 2002.
  • Actually, the classes were fake but we don't really cover that, so throw that out.
  • Oh and the fraud started in 2005.
  • And let's not include football and men's basketball because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Actually put them back in.
  • Oh and the fraud started in 2002 again.
  • Hey, now we cover fake classes sort of, maybe. Not sure what that falls under but we have "appropriate space" to cover it.
  • Alright, see y'all in a few months to do this all over again.

The NCAA has no idea what it does and does not police and punish. That's because the association's stated mission and its actual mission are different. Its stated mission is to make sure academics appear central to the college athletics experience. Its real mission is to keep all of the money generated by college sports within the system and the pockets of the people who run it, and to make sure all of its member schools—who don't trust each other not to cheat—are generally happy.

UNC has not said yet whether it will sue the NCAA, but even though the school deserves little pity for its involvement in academic fraud, the whole process, with no real rules and regulations, must be frustrating.

Another investigation, Another arbitrary set of association rules. Something has to change.