For an organization run by university presidents (and we’ll get back to that in a second), the NCAA on Friday reverted to the principles of its most conservative football coaches: A punt is never a bad play.
That’s what the NCAA did with the North Carolina case, after seven years of investigation, millions of dollars in legal fees (well spent, as it turns out) and three very different bills of indictment.
The NCAA punted.
And not just on the North Carolina case, either. It punted its entire mandate.
If the NCAA can’t punish North Carolina for decades of what was clearly, to any outsider, academic fraud designed to keep athletes eligible, what’s the point? Already exposed as feeble and inept by the FBI, which shed more light on the seedy side of basketball recruiting in one pun-laden press conference than the NCAA ever has, Friday’s admission that it has no way to punish North Carolina for decades of self-described scandal opens the door to fake classes everywhere.
As of Friday, there’s no reason for any athlete to be called a “student-athlete” anymore. They’re just athletes, because the NCAA is powerless to enforce the other half of its beloved phrase. And as if it just couldn’t resist applying a coda to highlight this, the NCAA ruled N.C. State freshman Braxton Beverly ineligible for having the temerity to attend a summer school class at Ohio State, the kind of capricious nonsense at which the NCAA excels.
The NCAA can knock around a kid who transferred before his freshman year even really began and had the blessing of the school he left, but years of academic fraud to benefit athletes remain outside its purview.
The infractions committee clearly wanted to find some way to penalize UNC but found itself pinned between its own mission and the university’s clever lawyering. University presidents, who run the NCAA and make its rules, don’t want the NCAA poking around in academics, what they insist on calling “curriculum,” leaving it up to the schools to decide what is and what isn’t academic fraud.
North Carolina figured out, in mid-investigation, that even if it called what happened in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies “academic fraud” when dealing with its academic accreditor, as long as it didn’t use those words with the NCAA, there was nothing the NCAA could do. So UNC started coming up with all kinds of other ways to describe the classes – calling the previous use of academic fraud a “typo,” according to the report – and left the committee on infractions a prisoner of its own bylaws.
“Sometimes the behavior that you’re not proud of just doesn’t quite fit into a bylaw or a rule or something,” North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said, which also serves as a reminder that even though the NCAA didn’t sanction North Carolina, this scandal will remain an embarrassing and shameful stain on a proud university’s reputation. No amount of gloating over a legal victory against the NCAA will change what happened.
North Carolina’s flip-flop on phrasing clearly irritated the infractions panel; if you can seethe in print, the decision positively seethes about UNC “pivoting dramatically,” to the point where it loses all control of its grammar.
“The membership trusts academic entities to hold themselves accountable and report academic fraud to the NCAA and has chosen to constrain who decides what constitutes academic fraud,” the report reads. “Because of this limitation, UNC’s decision to support the courses as legitimate combined with a stale and incomplete record that does not allow the panel to drill down to the course and assignment level – even if the panel had wanted to second guess the courses – it can not conclude academic fraud occurred.”
It all cascades from there. Without that foundation, the rest of the case crumbles to nothing.
Clearly, the committee wanted to find some way to punish North Carolina. That has been clear for months, since the committee demanded a new Notice of Allegations (the third) that was written far more starkly than the two that preceded it. But there will be no punishment.
“It’s important to understand that the panel in no way supports what happened,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, the chairman of the infractions committee. “What happened is troubling. ... The panel applied the membership’s bylaws to the facts and albeit times the position shifted and we were skeptical of positions taken, the panel couldn’t conclude violations. That’s reality.”
So there will be no punishment for anyone else who decides their athletes don’t necessarily need to go to class, after all. The door is now open for universities to create entire Potemkin departments for their athletes. Who’s going to stop them?
Certainly not the NCAA, a prisoner of the narrow vision of its own leaders, unable to enforce its core mission, thoroughly exposed as weak, powerless, ineffective and obsolete.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock