Luke DeCock

At UNC, a night for celebration, one way or another

Roy Williams is entertained by one of the player skits as the UNC Tar Heel basketball team has its annual "Late Night with Roy" event to open the college basketball season at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC, on Oct. 13, 2017.
Roy Williams is entertained by one of the player skits as the UNC Tar Heel basketball team has its annual "Late Night with Roy" event to open the college basketball season at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC, on Oct. 13, 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

The chancellor insisted Friday was “not a time of celebration,” and yet it was anyway.

It was impossible to separate the university-sanctioned celebration of North Carolina’s 2017 national title at Late Night with Roy on Friday from the chancellor-discouraged celebration of the NCAA’s inability to bring any sanctions against the university for the long-running scandal that has loomed over the school, in various manifestations, for seven years.

The good feelings ran together like melting crayons on what turned out to be a very good day for UNC fans.

While the celebration of the NCAA title was entirely justified, earned on the court by a team that arrived long after the paper classes ended and won in spite of the cloud they created, any gloating over the NCAA’s decision was tragically misplaced.

The NCAA’s failure to find a way to punish North Carolina did not exonerate the university; it all still happened. All of it. This shameful and embarrassing perversion of the relationship between academics and college athletics will remain a stain on the university’s reputation forever.

The university does not dispute that, even if it characterized the situation differently to its academic accreditor and the NCAA as best suited its purposes at the time. The facts remain the same. Only the NCAA’s interpretation of its own bylaws was in doubt. North Carolina is still a late-night punchline when it comes to athletes getting an education, perhaps even more now that the university escaped NCAA sanction thanks to some cynical, if clever, legal maneuvering.

But there was certainly nothing wrong with celebrating the end of it. There will be no appeal, no lawsuit, no prolonged legal warfare at the cost of millions of dollars. The university took steps to eradicate the conditions that led to the fake classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, it has faced the justice of its accreditor (scant as it may have been) and it has now escaped punishment by the NCAA.

The latter may be the most controversial, but it isn’t surprising. The biggest question facing this entire case from the beginning was how it fit into the NCAA apparatus, an organization that only legislates academics when easy and convenient, like penalizing schools for failing to adhere to arbitrary graduation and academic-progress standards, but tends to stay away when it gets complicated.

It also settles the additional question of what sanctions might have solved. Opposing fans salivated over banners coming down, especially in the wake of the NCAA’s harsh punishment of Louisville, but the 2005 and 2009 banners were still safely hanging Friday when the 2017 banner joined them. Even if those titles were vacated, North Carolina still won them. And postseason bans would have punished athletes who arrived on campus long after the classes ended. It would have been a deterrent to other schools, but that’s all.

“This is not a time of celebration,” UNC chancellor Carol Folt said, and while she’s right about the outcome of the NCAA case, there’s certainly every reason to celebrate the accomplishments of a basketball team that achieved ultimate success despite the NCAA investigation hanging over them.

“We’re just glad it’s over,” North Carolina forward Luke Maye said. “Coach just continued to preach to us the past two years. Now it’s behind us, and we’re just moving forward.”

For the first time in their careers, these Tar Heels will play unencumbered by that baggage. One way or another, after seven years, it’s over.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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