Hairston case reflects larger college athletics picture

Jul. 27, 2013 @ 12:50 PM

UNC basketball star P. J. Hairston is in the clear on the criminal charges from an arrest in early June. 

Last week, Durham County prosecutors dropped the charges of marijuana possession and driving without a license. Such a dismissal, authorities explained, was fairly routine given the circumstances of the case.

Hairston did have a valid driver’s license; it just was not with him at the time he was stopped at a checkpoint. And Hairston “completed a drug assessment,” which apparently was satisfactory.

It’s a relief to Hairston, I’m sure. And if, as seems apparent, the legal system moved swiftly and correctly to treat him no differently – no more harshly, no more leniently – because of his high public profile, that’s fine.

But Hairston’s troubles – and those of basketball coach Roy Williams and his bosses at UNC – are far from over.

It was Hairston’s misfortune to be stopped while driving a rental car – an expensive rental car, rented by someone other than him. And rented, on top of that, by a fellow with a nickname of “Fats,” never a good thing in cases with the implications of this one.

We may not know for a while what Hairston’s future holds. The NCAA is likely to impose a penalty, probably a suspension for several games.

Williams may exact even more severe punishment, out of a genuine concern to deliver a message about his program’s standards, as damage control as the university wrestles with a water-torture drip to its reputation for athletic integrity, or both.

All parties are likely to want to bring this to a close and to move on.

But this ought not to go away.

Regardless of the outcome of Hairston’s case, this episode is just another example of the horrid mess that is major-college athletics.

If P. J. Hairston had been known for his prowess at the lab bench, for example, rather than the basketball court, no one would have thought twice about a friendly guy loaning him a rented car for a weekend trip to Atlanta.

Of course, if he were known for his prowess in the lab or the lecture hall, he might have scored no better than a Prius, if at all, as a friendly loaner.

We don’t know why Haydn “Fats” Thomas was especially friendly to Hairston and other athletes. Maybe he was just a groupie. Maybe he wanted to link up with the gravy train likely to be Hairston’s pro career.

That a rental-car loan could be at once so minor an act and at the same time a punishable transgression that can upend a top-tier basketball program is embodied in the NCAA’s and universities efforts to grapple with the largely shattered “student athlete” model.

Star athletes are envied for their “full ride” scholarships, but unlike a lab-bench prodigy with a full scholarship, athletes can’t do much more than shake couch cushions for extra money.

Meanwhile, the system their low-paid labor undergirds is awash in money – from ticket sales, luxury suites, loyal and sometimes unhinged alumni, branding rights, naming rights, licensing fees, television rights and more. 

What a surprise that so much money attracts “entrepreneurs” of all stripes. And as the NCAA concocts ever more byzantine rules that make the Internal Revenue Service code seem simple, their enforcement efforts resemble in their frantic futility the feds during Prohibition.

So 19-year-olds are both extolled and exploited for their skills, simultaneously coddled and entangled, tempted by the unethical and harassed by the rulebook.

How long can this system survive before it collapses under its own ballooning weight?

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.