There will be something both exasperating and sad about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s leaders filing into a hearing before the NCAA Committee on Infractions in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday.
Among the group will be Chancellor Carol Folt, Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham, two Hall-of-Fame basketball coaches, Roy Williams and Sylvia Hatchell, and football coach Larry Fedora, all accompanied by their lawyers and well-rehearsed in their versions of why they shouldn’t be there. But they are there and, with the exception of Fedora, who became coach after the university’s problems with fake classes surfaced, they are there by their own fault.
Williams and Hatchell plead ignorance of the academic abuses that favored their athletes. But ignorance isn’t an excuse. It was their job to know. Folt and Cunningham admit there were problems, but take the audacious position that no-show classes that kept athletes academically eligible over a span of nearly 20 years are none of the NCAA’s business. They say it’s an academic matter that’s between the university and its accrediting agency.
The decision by university leaders to resist NCAA penalties has cost millions of dollars in legal and public relations fees and has drawn out this case for years longer than it had to be. If UNC loses before the committee, it appears prepared to appeal. And should an appeal fail, it appears prepared to sue the NCAA. Clearly there is no turning back since the university first chose the road of parsing the rules and evading the penalty.
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But it’s also plain that this course has led UNC only deeper into the morass, its reputation diminished as the case drags on. Even if UNC were to legally prevail, what was worth keeping – the university’s image as a school that conducts its athletics with the highest integrity – has already been lost. That it has come to this – the university’s leaders and its prominent coaches sitting before NCAA tribunal six years after the fake classes came to light – is an indictment of the university’s leadership.
The problems occurred before Folt arrived, but her job was to resolve the mess and demonstrate that academics come first at UNC. Instead she has surrendered her judgment to the legal maneuverings of lawyers and allowed the forces that drive UNC athletics to take precedence over the university’s academic reputation.
Folt should have simply admitted the university’s fault, acknowledged the NCAA’s authority and accepted the penalty. With that, the scandal would be in the past. Instead, it’s in Nashville and headed who knows where.