Halftime Sports

The UNC Scandal: Managing Expectations and Allegations

November 12, 2015


Fox Sports

Every NCAA rule violation comes and goes in the exact same way. They are so similar that it’s a never-ending broken record of official statements that mean absolutely nothing, press releases from the NCAA that are so wordy they are barely understandable, and an outbreak of media coverage for about three days until it blows over and ESPN talks about LeBron some more. North Carolina is the exception to this rule.

Talk still hasn’t stopped regarding the NCAA’s academic investigation of UNC. Last year, North Carolina was accused of five extremely serious Level 1 transgressions, the highest level violation possible, which the NCAA describes as a “severe breach of conduct.” It involved a bunch of academic violations that focused on the school’s Afro-American Studies department and went back 18 years. Indicting both academic personnel within the AFAM department and counselors/advisors for the sports teams, the overall charges claimed that the university didn’t do enough to monitor its athletes’ academic exploits and showed a “lack of institutional control” in dealing with student athletes’ grades. Student-athletes who were at risk of becoming academically ineligible were supposedly enrolled in fraudulent classes through the Afro-American Studies department that were independent study courses, did not require attendance at regular class periods, and were graded purely on a paper or two. They were barely even classes and were considered GPA boosters. Over the 18-year period that this scandal occurred, the NCAA found that out of the 3,100 students who took these fraudulent classes, 47.4 percent of them were student athletes. As a comparison, varsity athletes at UNC comprise only 4 percent of the total student population. Sports specifically mentioned in the investigation were women’s basketball, men’s basketball, and football. This is a very serious allegation, and the NCAA is apparently prepared to hand down one of the strictest penalties ever for academic wrongdoing.

The first question that popped into my mind was: How could this have gone on for 18 years without anyone important noticing and putting an end to it? That’s the part that’s hard to believe; will Hall-of-Fame caliber head coach Roy Williams go out with a reputation as tarnished as Joe Paterno, a coach of similar elite status? The further the NCAA digs, the more Williams must become compromised. A scandal of this magnitude does not go on for 18 years without the head coach knowing about it.

Almost every big-time school has seen some kind of NCAA violation over the past 10 years, so the allegations aren’t the new part. This list made in 2011 names all the schools that received fairly major penalties from the NCAA, and it is long. The situation is slightly different for North Carolina though, because of the basketball team’s expectations this year.

The Tar Heels are entering the 2015-16 season as No. 1 in the preseason AP poll and No. 2 in the preseason coaches’ poll. It’s their first preseason No. 1 ranking since 2011-12. The team is expected to challenge for the national title amidst these serious NCAA allegations. How will they manage? Not only will UNC have to put up with the pressure of being a top team, but they’ll also have to deal with the constant questioning and speculation regarding the NCAA investigation.

It’s possible that the NCAA will release sanctions against UNC before the end of this year’s basketball season, which could potentially compromise this team’s ability to participate in the postseason. The case is expected to go in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in December. After that, the committee will make a ruling within 90 days of the hearing, bringing a potential decision date dangerously close to the beginning of the 2016 NCAA tournament. Would the NCAA consider a postseason ban for the 2016 Tar Heels so close to the start of the tournament when they could be challenging for a top seed? Some analysts think that the NCAA will go light on UNC, and some think the basketball program might not get punished at all. Conversely, some have thrown the NCAA’s death penalty around as possible punishment. The death penalty, considered the harshest penalty the NCAA has to offer, would require the team to eliminate the sport’s whole program for a year or two and would prohibit participation in games or practices. The most notable death penalty was imposed on Southern Methodist football in 1988 for repeat violations of illegally paying players and recruits. Some smaller Division II and III schools have faced the death penalty since then in different sports, but SMU football is still the most high-profile recipient of the death penalty.

Because of the stark difference in opinion regarding possible penalties, I think it’s safe to say that no one knows what the NCAA will do.

If UNC basketball were to get the death penalty, it would certainly unseat SMU as the most notable case ever. I don’t think the Tar Heels will receive the death penalty, however, even though they may deserve it. The NCAA seems to be very gun-shy and unwilling to impose the death penalty, most recently with Penn State football, and this situation is so much more complex than any other. Because the misconduct was done under an academic department and was not limited to a single sport, the NCAA will either have to penalize all of UNC’s sports teams whose players took the illegitimate classes, or penalize none of them. I also do not think that the NCAA will impose a postseason ban on UNC in 2016; it’s too quick of a turnaround, especially because the season will be coming to its conclusion close to the time when the NCAA will release its verdict. I would expect the NCAA to hand North Carolina basketball a penalty similar to this: postseason bans in 2017-19, a few years of probation, mandated vacation of their 2005 National Championship, and some scholarship reductions. However, could you imagine the public outrage if North Carolina wins the 2016 national title and then is banned from 2017’s postseason a few weeks later?
Will Roy Williams’ legacy be infinitely tainted? Could UNC’s extremely talented 2016 team be punished for a scandal that began before some of them were even born? Only time will tell.


Nick Gavio
Nick is the Voice's former editorial board chair. Follow him on Twitter at @nickgavio, where he primarily retweets cute puppy videos.


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Comments 15

  • I suggest that you look deeper into these allegations. 18 years may sound like a long period but evidence points to it starting prior to the last national championship that Dean Smith won. The new head of the AFAM department back in 89 was officially named the department chair in 92. That same year, six of Smith’s players, including upperclassmen, switched majors. Care to guess what they switched to? AFAM. As far as the attempt at ‘fair and balanced’, the lawyers and PC firm at UNCCH want everyone to think that a group of professors, secretaries, president of the faculty, tutors for athletes all decided to start a scheme, unbeknownst to the athletic department, where they would hand out necessary grades for athletes which miraculously coincided with the minimum gpa outcome that kept those athletes eligible to play their sport.

    They may not receive the death penalty (although I believe that this is the exact situation where it would be most appropriate). I do believe that the penalty should be imposed immediately. Who cares about their current ranking or where they might be in March? Isn’t punishment for immense corruption and fraud supposed to hurt? If I robbed a bank and used the loot to take a world cruise, would the FBI wait until I finished the cruise to arrest me? At the very least, they also need to revoke all wins and titles dating back to the earliest days of the scandal: 1992. Remove 3 national titles. Remove the thousand or so wins. Slash their scholarship number for a number of years and anything else that can help them understand that they would never want to allow cheating again.

    One final note about the seriousness of UNCCH officials is that they have never been approached by the state government about the topic. This state is so immensely corrupt that the same powers that be control the state, including its public university system. There has never been a serious attempt by our legislature or governor to determine who was ultimately behind these nefarious schemes, including just this one ugly academic fraud one.

    • You bring up some valid points, many of which I agree with. I am well aware of the problems earlier under Dean Smith, however I focused on the more recent aspects of the scandal (the Williams years).

      As I said in the article, I agree that the death penalty probably should be given. However, this situation is far too complex for that. Unlike SMU or even Penn State (where the death penalty was considered), where the violations were limited to a single sport (football), this is a university-wide scandal. Do you give the death penalty to every single sport UNC offers? I don’t see that happening.

      I totally agree that penalties should be harsh. But do you really want to punish this year’s team? You think senior Marcus Paige, a double Journalism/History major with a GPA over 3, is the one to be punished? This team, that has nothing to do with it, should not be allowed to participate in the postseason? You think that they should be notified in late February “sorry, but you guys can’t play in the NCAA tournament because of stuff that happened when you weren’t here”? Penalize them harshly, no doubt, but for 2017. Dock scholarships, ban them from the postseason until whenever, remove titles and wins. Give the players on the roster who weren’t involved the opportunity to transfer freely to a different school of their choice, like what happened with Penn State. But, I don’t think they should punish Marcus Paige and this year’s team 4/5ths of the way through the season when they did nothing wrong.

      • No one seems to bother mentioning all the players cheated by this scandal over the past few decades. Why does everyone care so much about this years’ team? I couldn’t care less about Marcus Paige and how he feels. He started playing for the school while they were under investigation for the fraud correct? So why isn’t that his fault? At some point you have to punish the school. You can’t wait just because this year’s team is highly ranked. What about next years team? Do they deserve the punishment more than this year? That’s a ridiculous argument and you know it. The school has to be punished and it would be even more fitting if they were punished in a year they were expected to excel because it would hurt even more… which is after all the whole point of PUNISHMENT. You’re correct that they shouldn’t punish them 4/5ths the way through the season. They should have ignored UNC’s blatant attempts to stall this year and punished them before this season began… which they still can if they hurry.

        • I clearly said that UNC deserves to be punished, and I agree that it would be best to do during a year where they are supposed to be good. You seem to have misconstrued my argument to say that I don’t think they should be penalized this year because they’re a title contender, which is false. I would have happily accepted any penalties if the NCAA had released them months ago. My argument is that I don’t think the players on this team, who had absolutely nothing to do with the scandal, deserve to be punished at this point in the season.

          At Penn State, for example, the NCAA penalized the football program in July 2012 and allowed all players the opportunity to freely transfer out before the 12-13 season if they so chose, because they were not at all involved in the scandal. Would it really be right to penalize Paige and the rest of the team right now, as it is way too late for them to transfer out? The season starts tomorrow and I’m not well versed on NCAA transfer rules, but I would assume that the transfer deadline passed a long time ago.

          As far as your assumption that Paige was aware of the scandal before he committed? Paige signed his NLI to UNC on Jan. 1, 2011. The school didn’t receive its formal notice of allegations from the NCAA till July 2011. Sure, most of the younger players were probably aware of the allegations before committing and ending up at UNC, but that shouldn’t matter. You want to penalize them for choosing the school that they thought fit best? Come on. Let them transfer and punish the people who were actually involved.

    • I simply cannot fathom anything less than the death penalty and expungement of wins over the 18 year cheating period.

  • UNC is the one that has stalled in regards to taking this entire sordid issue to a conclusion with the NCAA. Heck, just before they were supposed to send their response in, they ‘found’ some ‘new’ allegations to report which in essence restarted the NCAA’s timeline.

  • Solid piece. It befuddles me that the media and public are letting Roy Williams get away with simply saying “I didn’t know and my name is not on the NOA”…this is the highest paid public employee in the state of NC, who is responsible for 15 total kids…he’s also got assistant coaches and support staff and between all those adults, I will never believe they and especially Roy Williams did not know this was going on.

    State employees (e.g., public school teachers) all got their first raise in years….$750 each. Roy Williams, who is already making $2MM received on average $140K EACH YEAR in BONUS money tied to his contract if his players graduate on average or better than the student body (~80% graduation rate). How appalling is that? $140K per year in bonus because his players “made the grade” but he’s not aware how they earn those stellar grades?

    Roy Williams is a liar and thief to the NC tax payers. Not only should he be fired, but also claw back all that excessive bonus money and pay it with interest too. This scandal has proven NC is the most corrupt state in our country and the UNC grads sitting in their appointed (not elected) BOG positions have let their sports lust for UNC basketball outweigh ethics and integrity.

  • The fact that 6 black basketball players switched to a new major, AFAM Studies (generalized name), is quite understandable. These kids were not of the same intellectual ilk that you find at UNC. FB and BB players, as a rule, search out easy majors. What did Alonzo Mourning, Sleepy Floyd, and Patrick Ewing major in? Math? English? Foreign Language? And if you were interested enough to find out what they indeed majored in, I’m sure that you will find clustering in those majors. And while you stated that UNC athletes made up nearly 48% of students enrolled in AFAM courses, while they represented only 4% of the UNC population, the more appropriate comparison is that they probably made up 20-25% of the black students in AFAM courses, since those courses were overwhelmingly populated by black students. So if you look at it in this vein, the ration of black athletes to black students in these courses is not so skewed.

  • So Nick are you suggesting that any future players beyond this year deserve to be punished? Paige has had years to transfer out. The scandal has been ongoing and if the coaches cared they could have sat with him and discussed what was best for him rather than letting him remain on the team through this mess. Obviously they’re more worried about UNC than Paige. Which is fine but I have no problem with him going down with the ship at this point. There will always be players that someone pushes that excuse for unless you expect everyone to transfer out of the program if they ever actually receive any punishments. There should be no consideration for them as far as I’m concerned. The school broke the rules and the school needs to be punished without regard to the inconvenience of the timing. When a decision is made it should be handed down. UNC is the one that pushed it out this far not the NCAA. If they’d been punished in a timely manner (rather than trying to stall) this would be a non-issue.

    Either way I dont think you need to worry about Paige. I’d be shocked if they get any punishment by the tourney next year anyway.

    • To answer your question, yes. The team and school (which, by default, includes the players) deserve to be punished very harshly. But you need to understand NCAA transfer rules. If Paige or any of the other players currently on the team were to have just left and transferred out over the past few years, they would have had to sit out from competitive games at their new school for a year. AND they would have lost one of their four years of collegiate eligibility.

      At PSU in 2012, the NCAA granted all players on the Penn State football team a waiver where they had the opportunity to transfer out and immediately play at their new school without sitting out and losing a year (and only 9 players chose to leave, so everyone doesn’t always transfer out). Then, after that point, current players who chose not to transfer and incoming recruits knew exactly what they were getting into. They knew they had a postseason ban. They knew that PSU had been docked 20 scholarships/year for the next four years. If they chose to stay or join the team AFTER the sanctions are levied, then it is absolutely their choice. That is what I would like to see done here. Give the players an opportunity to leave freely and play somewhere else. If they choose not to, that is their problem, but I’d like to see them have the choice.

      I agree that they probably don’t need to worry this year; even the NCAA isn’t dumb enough to punish a team 3/4 through the season.

      • And I doubt UNC will go the Syracuse route and self-impose sanctions.

        A question for the author – what brought you to write this article? It’s good to see discussion of this outside of the NC geographical area.

        • Big college basketball fan. I knew about the allegations previously, but not in detail. I was curious to research how the investigation/potential penalties would affect this year’s team (preseason #1 is a big deal, even for a perennial powerhouse like UNC)

  • I cannot believe that ACC Commisioner John Swofford is not apart of these conversations. As athletic director at UNC 1993-97 (I think- not sure), he certainly knew about this and must have given his blessing. He does not deserve to be in his current job. UNC has been so arrogant fron the very beginning. They have never willingly admitted anything or attempted any self sanctions. No comments from the UNC-BOG which figured heavily in the Jim Valvano witch hunt which produced nothing. There will be a huge outcry from NC State and other schools who have constantly been subjected to the mythical Carolina Way forever and all of those false graduation rate statistics. The fact that this has dragged on and on and it appears that the NCAA is going to let them off the hook for this basketball season, MAKES ME ABSOLUTELY SICK. and yes Nick, if all of the sports were participating then you punish them all.

  • Punishment should fit the crime, right? Since the UNC scandal is, by far, the biggest college athletic scandal ever, I suggest the following punishment. I wouldn’t require the death penalty, that would be too lenient. I’d require every team that had an ineligible play to forfeit all games, championships, and awards for the number of years that team had an ineligible player(s). Furthermore, I’d also prohibit those teams from being televised or eligible for post-season play for each year it had an ineligible player.

    The penalty fits the crime!

    • That’s a tad draconian. Especially in the world of big college athletics where everybody cheats. You are naive if you think otherwise.