NCAA Caves on UNC Corruption

 

Washington Post Blacks Out the News

 

When the University of North Carolina’s head basketball coach Roy Williams blithely told an interviewer at the beginning of this year’s Final Four playoff that the interminable investigation of the massive scandals into the university’s academic treatment of athletes has cleared the men’s basketball program and that it would receive no punishment, we thought it was a classic case of whistling past the graveyard.  We were also more than a little bit suspicious that he was saying that only to reassure potential recruits that they would not end up playing for a team that would be forbidden to compete in any post-season tournament play and/or would be weakened by limits on their athletic scholarships. 

 

Now it turns out that crafty Ol’ Roy apparently had a pipeline right into the highest reaches of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the organization that establishes rules and regulations for competition between the athletic teams of most of the nation’s colleges and universities.  That is to say, the NCAA is the primary body that is supposed to punish schools that do such things as field teams of essentially fake students because they can get good grades and remain eligible to play without doing real course work and, in many cases, not even going to class.  The university’s own investigation, the so-called Wainstein Report (after Washington lawyer Kenneth Wainstein who headed it up) reported in 2014 that UNC had offered essentially fake classes in its African and African American Studies Department for almost twenty years and that the primary beneficiaries initially were the members of the basketball team but that it had then spread to football players and members of other sports teams as well as other students generally.  The NCAA regularly metes out punishment for much less serious offenses.

 

The announcement that came out of the NCAA on Monday, April 25, that it had issued a new Notice of Allegations (NOA) to which UNC had 90 days to respond looked innocuous enough—though infuriating, nevertheless, just because of the continuation of the drawn-out process that began last May—and that is the way The Washington Post played it with a buried-away story put up on its web site during the day on Monday. The reader might get the impression that there’s not much to see here except that the university had achieved its goal of stringing things out some more by telling the NCAA some months previous that it had discovered some additional irregularities with women’s basketball and men’s soccer. 

 

The New York Times, for its part, did a little bit better with a Tuesday piece entitled “With 11 Missing Words, Some See Shift in N.C.A.A. Case Against U.N.C.”

 

The words that were removed are “particularly in the sports of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.”

 

Where the original notice of allegations said that the classes gave athletic department academic advisers ways to keep academically at-risk students eligible especially in those sports, the new notice of allegations implies that those sports did not benefit unusually. The change potentially erases the justification for the kind of allegation of impermissible benefits in those sports that can lead to penalties like vacated titles and postseason bans.

 

Oh my!  That was the rationale that the NCAA had used not to punish UNC for its academic transgressions in the first place before the Wainstein Report forced them to return to the campus.  Of course players of those sports did benefit unusually.   Anyone who has looked into the matter knows that is the case, as one can learn from my review of Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Athletics by Jay Smith and Mary Willingham or by reading my earlier article, “Silence Broken in UNC Athletic Scandal. 

 

But as a daily subscriber to The Washington Post I remained oblivious to these developments even though I had digested the essentials in the newspaper with my breakfast on Tuesday.  Then I got a call from a friend in North Carolina who began with the words, “I guess you’ve heard about the NCAA’s new Notice of Allegations for the Tar Heels.” I had not, I told him.  “The NCAA has caved in,” he said, “and they’re only going to punish women’s basketball.” WOMEN’S BASKETBALL!!??

 

My friend is a subscriber to the Raleigh News and Observer, and, in contrast to The Post’s blackout, that paper, whose reporter Dan Kane had done so much to publicize the scandal, was all over the story.   Kane’s coverage this time (which we quote from the Charlotte Observer because I’ve run over my free readings for the month at the Raleigh paper) predictably gets right to the heart of the matter:

 

The NCAA handed UNC-Chapel Hill a new notice of allegations Monday – a much smaller, 13-page document that is a gentler take on the academic-athletic scandal than the first notice delivered nearly a year ago.

 

The new notice removed an impermissible benefits charge that pertained to athletes who took fake classes from the fall of 2002 through the summer of 2011, and replaced it with a failure to comply with rules charge that starts in the fall of 2005. The new notice continues to assess a lack of institutional control charge against UNC, but also limits the misconduct to the fall of 2005 going forward for athletes in sports other than women’s basketball.

 

Football and men’s basketball are no longer mentioned as leading beneficiaries of the fake classes. In fact, the notice doesn’t mention them at all, and instead cites misconduct involving athletes in general in the lack of institutional control and failure to comply allegations.

 

The new notice, as expected, includes more examples of misconduct by Jan Boxill, a former academic counselor to the women’s basketball team. (emphasis added)

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The notice said Boxill’s conduct was so egregious that the NCAA waived its four-year statute of limitations. That statute wasn’t mentioned for the other allegations, including lack of institutional control.

The new notice says others in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes did not know what they were doing was wrong.

 

“Because of this failure of leadership and oversight, those charged with providing academic support for student-athletes did not believe their actions or the actions of the AFRI/AFAM department were inappropriate,” the new notice said.

ESPN has not exactly been all over this largest one-university scandal in the history of college sports, but they were alert enough this time to discern what has just come down from the NCAA throne:

 

So gather 'round the rulebook, all ye NCAA conspiracy theorists, we have found Jerry Tarkanian's Holy Grail: The NCAA is so mad at the Carolina football and hoops teams, it's going to penalize the bejesus out of women's basketball.

 

Indeed, what initially looked like an insignificant announcement, dumped in between Deflategate and Steph Curry's MRI results, actually is quite huge. The amended document (not an amendment, which is a significant semantics differentiation) left more than a few people who know the inner workings of the NCAA more than a little bit stunned. As one person put it via text, "Big win for UNC today."

All of which means UNC isn't likely to go before the Committee on Infractions until the fall, with a decision not likely to come much before 2017.

 

Once -- like, say, Friday -- that seemed like a dire timetable for the men's hoops team. Another season awaited the Tar Heels, like the one that just ended, played under the investigative cloud, with the Heels' accomplishments constantly held up like a stinky sock because of the potential NCAA sanctions.

 

Now, though, with the help of some bureaucratic hocus-pocus and a nice dollop of Wite-Out, things look decidedly less murky.

 

Except, that is, for the women's basketball team.

 

Jerry Tarkanian would be amused. (link added)

 

We need to go back to Mike DeCourcy in Sporting News, writing on April 4 in the wake of coach Williams’ claim that men’s basketball was in the clear with the NCAA, to get a better appreciation of what has just transpired:

 

He offered that it was only a “personal opinion,” so there may be no particular reason to overreact to Roy Williams’ statement to ESPN reporter Andy Katz that he believes the University of North Carolina basketball program will not be hit by NCAA sanctions.

 

That would mean, if he is correct, that at the conclusion of the NCAA investigation into academic irregularities at UNC, the Tar Heels would not face any of the coach suspensions that have become common among NCAA punishments, not deal with any roster restrictions and, most importantly, not be restricted from postseason play at any time in the future.

 

If he is correct, fans of North Carolina's regional rivals and other schools competing for elite recruits and NCAA Tournament glory are going to go berserk.

 

The New Ethical Order

 

Now it looks like Good Ol’ Boy Roy was right, and UNC’s competitors have every right to go berserk.  Here’s a sample from the Duke Basketball Report:

 

So to sum it up: despite criminal charges being filed, despite several investigations including the [ex-Governor James] Martin and Wainstein reports, despite being put on probation by the accreditation agency the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, despite Julius Peppers' damning transcript being made public, despite the lawsuit which revealed Michael McAdoo's plagiarism and began the exposure of wholesale systematic fraud, despite the other lawsuits by student-athletes, despite the unquestionable enrollment of dozens of football and men's basketball players in these fake classes, despite unauthorized grade changes, despite hiring an assistant men's basketball coach in Sean May without making clear that his degree was in fact earned (May talked extensively about taking independent study classes while at UNC which he said freed up his time considerably), which took place in the middle of the scandal in a giant middle finger to everyone, despite the NCAA investigation, football and men's basketball have a reasonable shot at getting away with a nearly 20-year effort to push players through school by means of fake classes taught in some cases without even the beard of a "professor" like [Julius] Nyang’oro.

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On the other hand, while the NCAA may not be able to tie anyone in basketball or football directly to the academic fraud, the fraud still exists. The transcripts still show the athletes who were enrolled in those "classes." It's entirely possible, and would be appropriate, if the NCAA voided every single event UNC won with an ineligible player, up to and including the Final Fours in 2005 and 2009.

UNC...has behaved disgracefully. It has fought disclosure at every turn. It has treated the media with contempt, going so far as to convert searchable text files into non-searchable PDF files. It has spent millions on attorneys and PR flacks and presumably some of that money came from the taxpayers. And now as UNC students apply to graduate schools, they're finding out that their accomplishments are tainted by the scandal. It's not fair to them, but who could blame an admissions department for a competitive program if it looked askance at a UNC application in 2016?

UNC's reaction to the ANOA underscores this, with A.D. Bubba Cunningham, rather than promising to set things right, or promising to restore UNC's honor as [late UNC president William C.] Friday did, instead promised to fight to see that UNC was "treated fairly."

 

For two decades, possibly longer, this university brought in athletes who had little chance of succeeding academically and rather than helping them to catch up, created false classes so the university could take advantage of their physical talents before casting them aside. They certainly didn't care about treating them fairly.

 

It's a pity we've abandoned shame in the West because some shame would be useful about now in Chapel Hill.

 

Along with shame, also discarded has been the old Southern code of honor, such as the one practiced by the late Dr. Friday.  Here is how UNC-Charlotte professor W. Douglas Cooper put it in a News and Observer op-ed piece:

 

UNC-Chapel Hill has been caught perpetuating a 20-year system of lies and cheating to advance its reputation and money returns from athletic victories. It has used its Southern code power to attempt to kill the messengers and in so doing has shown itself to be a bully of a very low class. It is without honor!

 

Truth has also been a major casualty according to a News and Observer editorial:

 

Unfortunately, the university responded to the scandal with millions of dollars in outside public relations help to “manage” the story and with expensive legal counsel, and it managed to dismiss Mary Willingham, a courageous former academic counselor who was a whistleblower in the scandal.  The updated notice of allegations has the whiff of being weakened by UNC lawyers pressing the NCAA hard to parse terms and narrow the extent of when and where it would place blame. If so, the lawyers have earned their money, but the university has ignored its obligation to find and accept the truth rather than ways to dodge it.

 

In case your cup of outrage has not yet completely overflowed, we have this response from my email to Cheated co-author Jay Smith in which I said that it looks like the NCAA has not taken his book to heart:

 

Indeed, one of the clear takeaways from yesterday's events, for me, is that no one in Indianapolis has read Cheated. Or, if they did, they discounted its contents entirely.

 

The whole thing stinks to high heaven. But my favorite fiction from the new NOA is the statement that the ASPSA [Academic Support Program for Student Athletes] counselors just didn't understand that what they were doing was wrong. Honestly, in order to believe such a thing you'd have to a) ignore ALL of the incriminating emails that make clear that everyone understood this whole thing was shady, or b) assume that the ASPSA counselors, all with Master's degrees or better, were dumber than rocks and never spent much time in universities themselves. The NCAA knowingly, culpably, handed the ASPSA counselors an enormous fig leaf--just to be nice, one assumes.

 

With this finding, the counselors who have been fired…would seem to have legal grounds for filing wrongful termination suits. Now THAT would be interesting.....

 

The stink might have reached all the way up to heaven, but the nose for scandal—even for news—seems not to have detected it at all at The Washington Post.  The last pressure point to clean up the mess of the NCAA is in Washington with the U.S. Congress, but it looks like The Post, corrupt itself to the core, is doing its best to see that no pressure at all be brought to bear.  To date, from all I’ve seen, they’ve had nothing more about this latest outrage than that equivocal little buried away report on their web site.

 

David Martin

April 29, 2016

 

 

 

 

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