When the NCAA announced last week (which then became “this week”) that they would release findings on its multi-year, multi-layered investigation into North Carolina athletics, I’ll be honest: I kind of assumed that UNC would get off pretty easy.
I didn’t think that they would get off easy necessarily because they’re North Carolina, one of college basketball’s golden goose programs, but instead, because of the timing of it all. The Tar Heels are the defending national champions in basketball, and the idea that any major punishment — specifically a postseason ban — could come just days before they opened their season seemed impossible. For some historical perspective, even UNLV was allowed to defend their national title in 1991, despite NCAA violations committed that off-season (for those who care, they served the NCAA ban a year later).
But while I thought the sanctions would be minimal (scholarship reductions etc.) even I couldn’t have imagined what came down from the NCAA on Friday: Absolutely nothing. After a four-year investigation into a 20-year academic fraud case, which covered virtually the entire university’s athletic department (not just their basketball team) the NCAA did nothing. No tournament or bowl bans. No scholarship reductions. No fines. No coach suspensions, nothing. To say this is a “slap on the wrist” is insulting to slaps on the wrist. It’s the equivalent of a kid coming home with all F’s on their report card, and his or her parents saying “Meh, do better next time.”
We’ll get into how absurd this “punishment” is momentarily, but before we do, let’s explain what happened in the first place — which of course will make the lack of punishment more ridiculous anyway. For those who haven’t been paying attention to this case, here’s what you need to know:
From 1993-2011, the University of North Carolina basically ran a bogus African-American studies program where students essentially had to do nothing to earn passing grades. They didn’t have to do homework or outside assignments, heck they didn’t even have to show up to class. In total, over 3,100 students passed through the program during that 18-year stretch, including quite a few athletes (including dozens of football and basketball players). Many students enrolled were non-athletes as well.
And in essence, that last part was the NCAA’s “get out of jail free” card. Basically, what the NCAA argued on Friday is that because there were non-athletes in those classes, it was a university academic issue, not an NCAA one. Because of the fact that all students had access to these classes, athletes weren’t getting any “extra benefits” that the normal student couldn’t get. And therefore the NCAA had no jurisdiction to punish the athletic department.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Much like a boyfriend coming home from a bachelor party in Vegas, the NCAA is using the “well, if everyone is cheating, was it really cheating at all?” card. And somehow North Carolina got away with it! Man, I wish explaining a way a trip to Vegas was that easy.
Ultimately, this is a bad look for the NCAA for so many reasons, but the most important one is this: It continues to perpetuate the stereotype that they kind of just make punishment up as they go along. That they spin a wheel or throw darts at a dartboard to make their final decisions before sanctions are handed out.
You know how I know that? Because never before has the NCAA used the “this is out our jurisdiction” defense before, let alone in a case this high-profile. To give you an example, remember the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky case a few years ago? Now admittedly, I think we can all agree that Sandusky is a deplorable human being who deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars (same with those who enabled him), but wasn’t that case WAYYYYYY out of the NCAA’s jurisdiction? It was a criminal case that went to the highest courts in Pennsylvania, and not a single, actual NCAA violation was committed (even if countless moral or ethical ones were). Yet Penn State was still hit with a four-year bowl ban (later reduced to two). Why was the NCAA cool with stepping out of their jurisdiction there, but not with North Carolina in this case?
By the way, I’ve got another one for you: Remember when SMU got banned from the NCAA Tournament a few years ago? That one flew under the radar because it’s SMU, a small school in Texas and because, well, SMU has a history with the NCAA.
SMU got a tourney ban bc one player cheated in one class, then left school. Entire University of North Carolina was cheating and got nothing
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) October 13, 2017
But to give you details on why SMU was banned from the 2016 NCAA Tournament, here’s what you need to know: They had one player get caught cheating in one class thanks to the help of one tutor. It’s worth mentioning that the tutor was immediately fired, and that the basketball player (a kid named Keith Frazier) left before the NCAA handed down its punishment. And you know what? SMU still got banned from the NCAA Tournament.
So just to be clear: One player, cheating in one class is a one-year NCAA Tournament ban. But the ENTIRE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA CHEATING???? Nope, nothing the NCAA can do here.
And really, I think it’s fair asking a few questions about the NCAA here. Mainly, like, what is their purpose at this point? We’ve seen in the last month that to catch cheaters the FBI has to come in, and now the NCAA isn’t going to punish academic fraud either? If the NCAA is really about regulating the crossroads between academics and athletics, but isn’t catching cheaters and isn’t busting schools for academic fraud, then what exactly are they around for? To catch a kid getting too many free meals at the dining hall or too many free rides home from an assistant coach?
Furthermore, this ruling opens up so many other cans of worms. What is to keep any other school from starting up bogus academic programs? As the NCAA explained Friday, just as long as other students are enrolled alongside athletes, it’s not cheating, right? Also, why are we to believe the NCAA when they say they enforce everyone equally? I’ve always defended the NCAA on that, considering that USC and Ohio State football as well as Syracuse and Louisville basketball have been put on probation in recent years. But after today’s case it really does feel like if you’ve got the right brand name (and right legal team) you can get away with pretty much anything.
And you know what the saddest part is? I don’t think the average even wanted the NCAA to crush North Carolina. The football team already took a bowl ban a few years ago, and the current players on the Tar Heels roster did nothing wrong and weren’t enrolled in any of those classes. Therefore, none of us were looking for the NCAA to bring the hammer. None of wanted the program to be torn down, or the Dean Dome demolished. We just wanted some kind of justice, to know that no program is above getting punished by the NCAA.
But instead of justice, we got nothing. No postseason ban, no scholarship reductions, not even the conversation of removing banners that were hung while rampant cheating was going on.
Ultimately Friday was a sad day for college sports and all of us who love them.
Well, unless you’re a North Carolina fan.
Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”