Though the NCAA huffs and puffs about rule-breakers, its “penalties” never have amounted to much: lost scholarships, perhaps a probation, a temporary ban on post-season play. The truth is, neither the organization nor its member schools care much for punishment. People make mistakes. Uh, oh. Oh, golly, we’re sorry. They didn’t mean it. We don’t want to hurt the kids.
But in the case of perhaps the worst scandal in college sports history, the athletics-academics disgrace at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with “paper class” shenanigans dating back 20 years, the NCAA has itself a real problem. The organization has released its notice of allegations and has used the term “lack of institutional control” as pertaining to the UNC program. That’s supposedly one of the most serious accusations the NCAA can make. Now the university will respond, and sometime around March of next year the NCAA will determine sanctions, if any, against the athletics program.
Those schools that have been punished in the past, losing face and money (no post-season bowl bonanzas, for example), are surely saying to the NCAA: You brought the hammer down on us for doing far less than the “Carolina Way” crowd did. So we are watching.
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Indeed, despite the university’s obfuscation and attempts to keep the lid on years of phony classes and academic advisers steering athletes to courses designed to keep them eligible but hardly to advance them toward a degree, this four-year saga has been and remains an embarrassment. The reporting of The News & Observer’s Dan Kane and a $3 million investigation by Washington attorney Kenneth Wainstein confirmed the worst, a long-running exploitation of athletes who were just that and not in fact “student-athletes” all universities talk about.
The university’s response will be interesting. At this point, with Wainstein’s having confirmed virtually all of the reporting by Kane, UNC-CH surely won’t try to defend the indefensible.
But it may very well make an argument that has been made by other schools facing potential sanctions: Yes, there were problems, but all the people involved are gone. Why punish athletes who weren’t part of the problem or deny scholarships to those dreaming of college careers who now are in high school?
A culture problem
It’s quite true that in the course of UNC’s scandal, a chancellor left and an athletics director retired. And the athletes in those phony classes are no longer on campus. Yes, current Chancellor Carol Folt wasn’t ruling the roost while the scandal was in progress, and Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham wasn’t in charge.
But this great university had a shocking, inexcusable and almost institutionalized culture of exploitation going on that brought shame on the university’s reputation, and not just its athletics reputation.
If the NCAA brings forth a weak-kneed punishment, its other members are going to react strongly and may even take the organization apart. But if it really comes down hard on UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s going to mess with a key ingredient of member schools of the Atlantic Coast Conference, for example, sharing in hundreds of millions of dollars over a multi-year period.
Money may, in fact, be a major factor in any determination of punishment. Universities enjoying the huge stadiums, the luxurious booster perks, the bowl trips, the television deals have made themselves prisoners of the dollar. Many new presidents have found out quickly that they can’t touch the athletics program at any schools because too much money is involved. The university’s “brand” is sold to apparel companies. Football and basketball teams become for some a university’s sole identity.
UNC-Chapel Hill is more, much more, than its athletics program, and the vast majority of alums know it. The question is whether the NCAA’s punishments will be a lesson, albeit a painful one, or merely a temporary slow-down on the way back to the status quo.