The end is in sight. Surely, finally, the end is in sight.
At least the beginning of the end is in sight, now that officials and coaches from the University of North Carolina are headed later this week for an NCAA infractions committee hearing to address alleged rules violations by the athletic program. The UNC deputation will be among some 13 million visitors annually to Nashville, where the hearing will be held at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Perhaps the country music setting is a thoughtful attempt by the NCAA, headquartered in Indianapolis, to make potentially bitter medicine go down easier for the Southern school. Or else the meeting planner scanned the latest country hits and thought a rendition of Ryan Robinette’s “Proof is on Your Lips” would encourage a confession.
Good luck on that one. No need here to rehash the outlines of the UNC case or the principles supposedly at issue. If you’re not sick of hearing them recapped, you’re probably also the sort who fails to notice The Beatles repeated “Let it be” 36 times in the enduring song of the same name. For most of us the NCAA-UNC tussle is reminiscent of the interminable presidential election campaign that ended last November, a battle of flawed contestants in which getting the process over with seemed the most desirable outcome. How little we knew.
For years North Carolina has dug in its heels, at considerable cost. “In a crisis, timing is everything,” says Kathleen Hessert, founder and CEO of Sports Media Challenge, a longstanding Charlotte-based “reputation management company and social media consulting firm.” “They have let this drag out way, way too long.”
Whatever the NCAA ultimately rules — and that could take months — doesn’t matter all that much anymore. Few minds are apt to be changed, or institutions deflected from their positions. In this case, the verdict already is in.
Both sides lost.
The NCAA has tried sporadically under president Mark Emmert to more aggressively apply penalties for transgressions that aren’t in the strictest sense within its purview. This led to coloring outside the lines to punish Penn State and coach Joe Paterno in 2012 for countenancing sexual molestation of young boys. While the urge to act was understandable in light of the “egregiousness of the predicate conduct,” as the NCAA put it, Emmert and Company went too far. Within four years, prodded by court action, most sanctions on Penn State were rescinded.
Seemingly chastened by the consequences of that very public display of overreach, the NCAA has moved glacially to investigate more widespread, blatant tolerance of sexual assaults of women at Baylor. NCAA staff meanwhile has stopped and started, hemmed and hawed trying to figure out what to do about North Carolina’s faux classes, finally leveling five serious charges including the dreaded “lack of institutional control.”
The UNC case falls in a nether realm where academics and athletics overlap, where drawing the line between accepting aberration as convention (“Every school has courses like that”) or decrying it as corruption is not as clear cut as we would prefer. But the NCAA’s history of abusing its authority, and its years of vacillation in the Carolina case, do little to engender confidence any ruling it renders will be wise or fair.
For its part, North Carolina already has demonstrated a level of dismissive arrogance toward the latest charges leveled against it, at least publicly, that make it a most unsympathetic victim. Hessert, the 31-year PR executive, detects “weariness and vulnerability” in its stance, hardly a winning combination. Way back when, transgressors caught violating NCAA rules squirmed and postured, angled privately for a better deal but eventually went along with the program and moved on, eager to shed a cheater’s label. Plea bargains are an American legal tradition dating to the 19th century; lately they’ve grown popular in NCAA circles, where preemptive self-punishment became standard practice for miscreants. Sometimes the NCAA buys it, sometimes it doesn’t.
UNC, guided in part by a former member of the NCAA enforcement staff, chose a different route, giving the governing body of college athletics a bold, public middle-finger salute. The stance is at odds with the June 2015 declaration by athletic director Bubba Cunningham that “Everybody wants to bring closure to this.” Perhaps leaders in Chapel Hill have tried to quietly compromise, as rumored, and were rebuffed. Now some applaud UNC’s intransigence, its challenge to NCAA authority, as a courageous stand against arbitrarily wielded power. At least that’s the fantasy scenario among the hardcore defenders of what was clearly a system of shadow classes exploited to keep players eligible.
“The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business,” the NCAA wrote to Carolina officials. The correspondence added, making the case for applying its jurisdiction, “In sum, it is an NCAA matter when other member schools who choose not to provide impermissible benefits are disadvantaged by their commitment to compliance.”
The effect of UNC’s position is to cast its leaders as unapologetic, and more eager to defend the school’s athletic reputation than its academic stature. Yes, we had hollow course credits, they seem to be saying, but that was done for its own sake, not to benefit athletes. We’ve already enacted 70 reforms to fix the shortcomings we concede, so quit bothering us.
Unfortunately the very prolonged tug-of-war with the NCAA serves to keep the charges alive in public discourse and to reinforce rather than refute Carolina’s association with impropriety. Six ACC programs have run afoul of NCAA regulations during this decade: Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and of course UNC in 2010 with its agent entanglements during Butch Davis’ reign. Of those schools, only North Carolina has run afoul of the NCAA a second time.
“Stubbornness doesn’t help here,” says Hessert. She urges a less dated, defensive approach in favor of a “solid strategy to communicate going forward” to reach constituencies (alums, athletes, fans, etc.) that care about the school. But cleansing UNC’s name, now widely rendered as synonymous with organized cheating, will take more work than that.