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.