More important than whatever action the NCAA takes against the University of North Carolina for what is perhaps the worst athletics-academic scandal in collegiate history is what the UNC administration will do to reel in its corrupt athletic department and its aiders and abettors.
The NCAA is between a rock and a hard place because it badly needs North Carolina athletics to be vibrant and healthy. A few years of severe sanctions against UNC means a potentially huge revenue loss for the NCAA, from both television rights and post-season play. Before these revelations of extreme cheating, Carolina had a squeaky-clean reputation, due in large part to the integrity of late basketball coach Dean Smith. That’s all over now. The UNC athletic department will likely never again enjoy such a lofty status in collegiate sports.
On the other hand, UNC, as the state’s flagship institution of higher learning, should see the reputation of its university and the integrity of its academics as pre-eminent and thus institute dramatic and historic reforms. Up until now, the UNC administration has maintained a laissez-faire attitude toward the athletic department. “Trust us,” was their cry. “We pay our own way, and we follow the rules.” This relationship provided the athletic department reckless freedom to self-destruct.
Once I told former UNC athletic director John Swofford I wanted to write a story that, in part, looked into athletic department finances. Swofford placed his hand on my shoulder and said: “Now, Patrick, why would you want to write about a thing like that?”
So went my journey at The Chapel Hill Newspaper as I reported on stories that looked into how the UNC athletics department spent its money. Despite North Carolina’s status as a state-funded public institution, getting financial information from the athletic department was never easy. Then-UNC attorney, Susan H. Ehringhaus, would usually help the AD’s office erect road blocks, and it often required the help of N.C. Press Association lawyers to get UNC to provide the information to which the newspaper and the public were entitled.
Now that UNC’s house of cards has crumbled, damage control has been carried out, but with all the wrong emphases. The messengers have been killed (Rashad McCants and Mary Willingham), the news media have been bashed, basketball coach Roy Williams has been “dumbfounded.” Swofford recalls nothing. Some sacrificial lambs have moved on (Dick Baddour and Jan Boxill). And Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge are gone.
Now what? As much as it will hurt in the short term, UNC has to give Williams his walking papers. Williams, who likes to flippantly refer to the scandal as all that “junk going on,” is a big part of the problem. Despite his status as the state’s highest-paid employee, Williams did not do his job. At best, he is an incompetent administrator who failed to maintain control over the handful of athletes he was supposed to monitor. At worst, he knew all about the cheating and took a see-no-evil-Joe-Paterno approach, hoping his immorality would go undiscovered.
UNC should also take down Williams’ now-tainted 2005 and 2009 NCAA Championship banners from the Smith Center rafters. These titles were won by cheating, plain and simple. Carolina must own up to its ill-gotten titles and voluntarily disown them. Additionally, all UNC victories for any years in which ineligible players were used should be vacated. Williams – and UNC basketball – should have those wins wiped from records. The Carolina football program, and any other nonrevenue teams that used ineligible players, should face the same fate.
The UNC administration must implement a two-tiered system of control over its athletic department, meaning its athletic director must answer to a dean whose job will be to maintain a hands-on, day-to-day connection between the “real” university and athletics. UNC should also implement a dual system of economic regulation in which the athletic department does not maintain unfettered control of its finances. It’s time to implement a system of checks and balances between the university and its wayward athletics department.
It’s time for honest leadership to prevail in Chapel Hill. The time of reckoning has come for UNC athletics, and the NCAA may not be the agency to provide the incentive that leads Carolina back on the road to integrity. The university must take steps to steady the ship and steer it back to the “Carolina Way.”
Patrick O’Neill of Garner is a former sports and news reporter with The Chapel Hill News, formerly known as The Chapel Hill Newspaper.