North Carolina

Here’s what happens next in the NCAA’s investigation into UNC

North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora, center, arrives at an NCAA hearing on Wednesday.
North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora, center, arrives at an NCAA hearing on Wednesday. AP

It took 1,143 days for the NCAA investigation into UNC-Chapel Hill to reach the NCAA Committee on Infractions, which is like the judge and jury in a major infractions case. And now: more waiting.

University officials, along with coaches Larry Fedora, Sylvia Hatchell and Roy Williams, convened in Nashville, Tenn., earlier this week for a long-awaited hearing before the infractions committee. The next step is for the committee to issue its final ruling, which will include penalties.

There was no indication on Thursday, when the two-day hearing ended after 15 hours of deliberations, about how the proceedings went. NCAA officials never comment amid an ongoing investigation, and UNC officials, along with the coaches, declined to offer any insight into how the hearing went.

The only comment came from Steve Kirschner, a university spokesman who issued a short statement about the university’s decision not to issue a statement: “Can’t talk about the hearing and can’t talk about the facts of the case so there is nothing to add at this time.”

The silence after the hearing came after more than a year’s worth of combative correspondence leading into it. UNC and the NCAA Enforcement Staff, which is responsible for building infractions cases, have gone back and forth, and often in terse, strong language, about the details of the case.

The primary difference between the parties is how the NCAA has applied its bylaws to the case, which, at its core, is about the relationship between the athletic department and a long-running system of bogus African Studies courses that never met, featured little to no instruction and required only a paper that often received a high grade regardless of quality.

Athletes, especially football and men’s basketball players, filled the classes in high, disproportionate numbers, and the NCAA has alleged that UNC used the courses to help academically at-risk athletes maintain their eligibility. The university, though, has argued, repeatedly, that the classes and the problems surrounding them don’t represent a violation of NCAA bylaws.

Indeed, the NCAA has had a difficult time applying its rules to the case. It has issued three notices of allegations, each one targeting in different ways the courses at the heart of the investigation. The enforcement staff has not pursued an academic misconduct case, despite the academic problems associated with the courses.

Instead, the NCAA has built its case around allegations of impermissible benefits. The access to the courses, and not so much the courses themselves, were the real problem, the NCAA has alleged. UNC, meanwhile, has repeatedly argued that the classes were no more available to athletes than they were to non-athletes and that, because of that, there was no special access or preferential treatment for athletes.

Undoubtedly, how the NCAA has framed its case was among the primary points of discussion during the infractions committee hearing, which was closed to the public. After two days of deliberations, now the case is in the committee’s hands.

It must decide to what degree it accepts the arguments from both sides and, ultimately, the committee must decide whatever penalties UNC will face. Projecting what the committee might do is an impossible task, especially given the unpredictability of NCAA punishment.

Among the more serious penalties that UNC could face includes the vacation of victories in various sports, or a postseason ban, or both. The 2005 national championship in men’s basketball could be at risk, and perhaps the 2009 championship, as well, given the number of the players’ enrollments in the courses in question.

Men’s basketball and football, though, were not the only sports whose athletes found their way into these courses. Women’s basketball players, baseball players and women’s soccer players, among others, also took these courses, which raises the question of selective punishment: If men’s basketball is subject to harsh penalties, then wouldn’t other sports be, as well?

No sport, and no coach, faces specific charges of wrongdoing, which adds to the difficulty of predicting what the infractions committee might do. Less serious penalties would include institutional probation, a fine and scholarship reductions, depending on the number lost.

The only certainty, now, is that it will take a while before there is a ruling. When UNC appeared before the infractions committee in 2011 amid a separate NCAA investigation into its football program, it took the committee 136 days to issue its ruling.

If this case follows the same timeline, there could be resolution by late December. UNC will then have an opportunity to appeal the ruling, if it desires. Bubba Cunningham, the university athletic director, has said the UNC is prepared to “exhaust” all of its options to defend itself.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter