The pending return of NCAA investigators to Chapel Hill might not feel like good news for the University of North Carolina and its supporters. But the probe promises welcome resolution, a chance to dispel the scent of suspicion that clings like a skunk’s spray to a school once considered a national leader in balancing the demands of athletics and academics. The return also has the potential to cast the NCAA in a bit of positive light just when the organization needs it most.
Whether a fresh examination by the NCAA uncovers systemic misconduct behind the “academic irregularities” cited by UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham in announcing the return visit is almost beside the point. North Carolina needs an independent outside entity to pronounce judgment before the school, its loyalists and its critics can move on.
Evidence well-documented by News & Observer reporters Dan Kane and Andrew Carter certainly hints at conscious, long-standing practices by UNC staff to pad academic performance to maintain players’ eligibility. Much of that information came to light following an earlier NCAA investigation of Butch Davis’ football program that resulted in probation and lost scholarships.
UNC leaders have tried – most recently by hiring Kenneth Wainstein, a respected ex-federal prosecutor – to seek answers. Wainstein’s is the third internal investigation in three years. He might even get to the truth, or some version of it, regarding questions and allegations about steering athletes to Potemkin village-type courses in the African and Afro-American Studies department. (The AFAM department’s name has since changed to African, African American, and Diaspora Studies.)
Efforts by Wainstein, Orange County district attorney Jim Woodall and others apparently have borne fruit already. In announcing a return to campus, an NCAA statement concluded “that additional people with information and others who were previously uncooperative might be willing to speak with the enforcement staff.”
Wainstein told the UNC Board of Governors he hoped to wrap up his work this fall, a timetable that could change with the NCAA back in the picture. A delay in reaching a resolution on dubious AFAM classwork is unfortunate but might be necessary. The school has been linked to scandal for so long now – an entire class of undergraduates has come and gone under a cloud – its credibility requires major, deliberate repair.
Turmoil has come to seem chronic at Chapel Hill. The director of athletics and football coach were forced out in 2011. A year later chancellor Holden Thorp, a proud graduate and strong believer in the school’s traditions, felt compelled to resign. The football program was punished, in part for athletes accepting benefits from agents that violate NCAA rules on amateurism. Last fall several players were suspended from the men’s basketball program for accepting unauthorized benefits from third parties. That cost P.J. Hairston, an eventual NBA first-rounder, the remainder of his collegiate eligibility. Court cases have been initiated, allegations of complicity in shaving academic standards leveled on national TV by former UNC athletes.
Specter of discontent
Meanwhile, by taking the most cautious approach to public disclosure of relevant information, UNC officials fostered understandable skepticism. Confidence in an intentionally opaque institution is difficult in a society that offers too many examples of seemingly trustworthy sources caught in cover-ups and lies – General Motors and former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon being only the latest examples.
Statements by disaffected athletes like Rashad McCants, no matter how suspect nine years after leaving school, do raise the specter of a disconnect between the promise and the reality of gaining a UNC scholarship. This strikes at the heart of the university’s integrity and the NCAA’s amateurism argument, which posits that a student-athlete receives a quality education in fair trade for services rendered. Undermine that education, and the bargain is corrupted, as detractors of big-dollar college sports have argued for decades.
That’s why it serves the NCAA’s best interests to revisit possible academic improprieties at UNC. The failure to act suggests NCAA favoritism toward a high-profile athletic program, putting the bottom line before the organization’s supposed core values. Nor can the NCAA appear to be indifferent given the pending O’Bannon lawsuit challenging the basic student-athlete model, a case now in the hands of U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in California.
The value of an NCAA investigation is a matter of debate. As a voluntary organization – that does, however, control big bucks and intercollegiate championship competitions – its investigators lack subpoena power or the authority to compel testimony. “There’s a lot of stuff you can’t get to, but you can get to a lot of it,” said Tom Yeager, the Colonial Athletic Association commissioner who has served on the unpaid NCAA Committee on Infractions.
Reformers argue the NCAA needs to change its enforcement model, perhaps by employing outside firms better-versed in investigation. Woodall, the Orange County DA, is among those who marvel at the conflicts of interest inherent in the NCAA system.“You have this organization – they establish the rules, they enforce the rules, and then they run championships,” he said. “There’s a financial interest in keeping the best athletes available . To me it’s just crazy to think the NCAA should do this when they have this clear conflict.”
Regardless of the shortcomings of the process, a fresh look by the NCAA could provide a much-needed sense of finality at UNC. One party apt to benefit is coach Roy Williams, whom McCants recently accused of complicity in academic fraud.
“I never want to do anything to hurt this program,” Williams said last February, choking up at the thought. The former Dean Smith assistant recoiled at the notion athletes were brought to UNC to be used rather than educated. “It’s hurt more than anything because our players come here for the right reasons. Our players want to get their degree. Our players do try. The whole thing, the whole stigma for the university includes everybody. It includes the student who’s not a basketball player, who’s not a football player, who’s not any one. It’s harmed the reputation of the university.”
And that was before McCants directed accusations specifically toward Williams.
“Again, I’m old-fashioned, I’m old school, but it’s hurt more than at a lot of other places,” Williams said months ago of ongoing doubts assailing his alma mater. He and other Carolina adherents might not like what the NCAA eventually finds or does, but the results are bound to be better than the current state of limbo the university can’t seem to escape.