Even as its football team struggles through a disappointing season, the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is hearing some echoes of cheers today as the NCAA, governing agency of college athletics, has ruled that it “could not conclude that the University of North Carolina violated NCAA academic rules” with years of phony paper classes of which athletes were a significant part.
In other words, the agency said UNC wins in its argument that because the classes included students other than athletes, the benefits of those classes were not primarily for athletes.
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And thus, after years of investigations – including a $3 million one led by Washington attorney Kenneth Wainstein that found improper assistance with grades and classes that never met over 18 years for thousands of students, including athletes – the university will keep its championships and avoid penalties. (A member of one championship team said he was enrolled in but didn’t attend classes.)
The NCAA did find two violations in its long-awaited findings, both directed at the lack of cooperation from Julius Nyang’oro, longtime chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and his assistant, Deborah Crowder. That department was one found by Wainstein to have had “paper” classes that didn’t meet.
Of course, the university already took some action on its own, but beyond the NCAA focus were previous issues with football players and agents. And throughout these years of tumult around athletics – substantially reported on by The News & Observer’s Dan Kane – the university has circled its wagons and spent millions of dollars on attorneys and outside public relations help to manage a story that could easily have been addressed, from the beginning, with the openness and candor. That’s what this public university owed its constituents.
The university may have some relief now, but the taxpayers who support it, who own it, to whom all university officials report, have no reason to join the cheers. Under the judgment of the NCAA, a weak-willed governing body charged with protecting not just the integrity of sports but the billion-dollar enterprise that is college athletics, UNC-CH has come out well here.
But the emerging reports on alleged bribery involving some college coaches and agents and connections with the apparel companies that have rich contracts with individual coaches may yet yield a scandal of tremendous proportion (not involving the UNC system).
This is not to say or imply that anyone should be hoping for a scandal, or that the gentle treatment of UNC-Chapel Hill by the NCAA is a disappointment of some kind. But the university needs to demonstrate that it has learned from this experience, which has in some ways split the university community, with some professors saying the athletics program has been treated with kid gloves and multimillion-dollar salaries for some coaches and other spending on facilities sends the wrong message about the university’s priorities. Some boosters have countered that the entire scandal was the product of wishful thinking from the university’s rivals or the news media.
In fact, the university rested too long on its self-anointed pride in the “Carolina Way,” implying that its athletics program was a shining example of perfection and integrity. While there’s no question that people such as the late Dean Smith did indeed nurture a reputation of fair play and academic standards in the athletics program, continued diligence is important to avoid complacency – and problems.