- Most will see the NCAA not dropping the hammer on UNC for academic fraud as further proof that it shouldn't even exist. But that's the wrong way to look at it.
The NCAA just handed North Carolina a Get out of Jail Free card, and you will hear a lot about what a travesty this is. You’ll hear that the NCAA plays favorites, the system is rigged, the concept of student-athletes is a joke, the world is an unjust place and if UNC can commit blatant academic fraud and escape, why does the NCAA even exist?
You will not read that here. I know I will be in the minority, but I completely understand the NCAA’s decision. In fact, I expected it. And before I continue, let’s be clear:
UNC absolutely should be ashamed of what happened. North Carolina was not a victim of some media smear campaign. Widespread academic fraud occurred at the university for many years. This goes against the very purpose of any school’s existence. It is more offensive than most transgressions that bring heavy NCAA sanctions.
But the job of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions is not to be outraged or decide when something is morally wrong. The committee is supposed to determine if NCAA violations have occurred and then, what penalties should be administered. And if you look closely you can understand why the NCAA did what it did.
This is what we know: Going back two decades, North Carolina’s African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department offered paper classes. Credits were given but hardly earned. Athletes took advantage of these phony classes—and were more likely to do so than the average student. But roughly half of the 3,100 students who took the classes were non-athletes.
This put the committee in a weird spot. Remember: the NCAA is an athletic association. Its mission is to organize and run collegiate sports. And the NCAA was frankly stuck here. North Carolina teams clearly benefited from these phony classes, but the school offered those classes to everybody. It’s not the NCAA’s job to admonish an entire university.
The NCAA looked at various other potential charges: Lack of institutional control? Technically, according to the NCAA, institutional control means “any athletics program must reflect the ideals of the institution it represents.” Basically, it covers athletic departments that go rogue. That could have applied here because there were some advisors who steered athletes into the dummy courses, but it wasn’t clear-cut, since those courses were not set up primarily for athletes.
The NCAA tried calling these courses “impermissible extra benefits,” but that didn’t quite fit, either.
I know, I know: This all feels empty. I understand. As long as the NCAA exists, we want it to punish those who cheat and win.
But what’s funny is that we’re the ones obsessed with the program that won. I am talking, of course, about Roy Williams’s men’s basketball program. Everybody says Ol’ Roy got off easy. Well, that’s a juicy story, but it also doesn’t jibe with the facts.
There isn’t much evidence that this was primarily a men’s basketball scandal. Jan Boxill, an advisor who retired after being accused of steering athletes to phony classes, was the counselor for women’s basketball.
The AFAM department started to veer off in the 1990s, when Williams was at Kansas. He returned to North Carolina, his alma mater, in 2003. By his second year, he decided that too many of the players he inherited where taking the same African-American Studies courses. He asked his assistant coach in charge of academics, Joe Holladay, to make sure they weren’t being steered there.
That was in 2004–05—years before any of this became public. Williams has said he didn’t suspect fraud. He was just worried players were being pushed into the easiest classes. And according to a university-commissioned, independent report issued in 2015, academic advisors from the men’s basketball program “did not routinely steer players into the classes.” Players found them on their own. Basically, teammates told them these were easy classes, so they took them. (The football program’s advisors did steer players, however.)
Former player Rashad McCants went off on Williams on ESPN. But his teammates refuted a lot of what he said, so McCants’s comments alone do not make a compelling NCAA case.
Look, it’s easy to rail against the NCAA. I’ve done it a million times. But let’s also admit that our outsized passion for college sports has thrown everything out of whack.
As a culture, we have decided that major sports programs are an essential part of these universities—perhaps—the essential part. I bet when you ask the average American to play word association with “Duke University,” the first word that comes up is basketball-related. We know Duke is one of the finest universities in the country. But when we think about Duke, we think about Coach K.
So if you’re mad at the NCAA today, you are essentially telling North Carolina: “Hey, your university’s shame about widespread academic fraud is meaningless unless your basketball program gets punished.” How messed up is that?
Well, UNC should be embarrassed, and at times the school has not been nearly embarrassed enough. As infractions committee chair Greg Sankey said Friday, “positions shifted and we were skeptical … but the panel could not conclude violations. That’s reality.”
There are no heroes here. Nobody, including Sankey, is screaming that justice was served. There is still a lot of shame in this case. But that shame belongs to North Carolina, not the infractions committee.