The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill got a mild updated “notice of allegations” from college athletics’ weak governing body, the NCAA, regarding the disgraceful, long-running academic fraud scandal that touched on its athletics program. It should have come as no surprise that the NCAA is walking softly around Chapel Hill, though it does allege five “Level I” violations – the most serious – which the university will have to answer.
A multi-year scandal unfolded around fraudulent classes in African studies, “paper” classes wherein students did not attend lectures but simply wrote papers for a grade. Athletes, including men’s basketball and football players, were disproportionately enrolled in the classes. The News & Observer’s Dan Kane wrote a series of stories documenting those issues, and his stories led to a $3 million-plus investigation by Washington attorney Kenneth Wainstein, called in by the university. In the end, Wainstein essentially found that Kane’s reports were on target and that the university had a serious scandal on its hands.
Unfortunately, the university responded to the scandal with millions of dollars in outside public relations help to “manage” the story and with expensive legal counsel, and it managed to dismiss Mary Willingham, a courageous former academic counselor who was a whistleblower in the scandal.
The updated notice of allegations has the whiff of being weakened by UNC lawyers pressing the NCAA hard to parse terms and narrow the extent of when and where it would place blame. If so, the lawyers have earned their money, but the university has ignored its obligation to find and accept the truth rather than ways to dodge it.
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Now the university will respond to the NCAA, and the “governing” body will presumably deliver punishment in the form of ... well, who knows? Men’s basketball and football, after all, are not mentioned in the amended notice of allegations. So UNC fans are doubtless relieved that two basketball championships, in 2005 and 2009, probably won’t be at risk. The 2005 team had heavy enrollment in fake classes, but the 2009 team had fewer. And the NCAA has conveniently chosen to limit its probe to the fall of 2005 going forward.
Jay Smith, an outspoken history professor who has criticized the university’s handling of the scandal, said he believed the latest from the NCAA shields that 2005 team and a title he called “the most stained championship in UNC’s history.” Smith called the NCAA a “paper tiger.”
There will be some penalties. But the NCAA has signaled with its latest action that UNC-Chapel Hill, with its massive money-maker of an athletics program (and a basketball operation that just played in the finals of the NCAA tournament), has little to fear.