UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday morning received its long-awaited judgment from the NCAA Committee on Infractions, which “could not conclude academic violations” in the case, according to a statement the NCAA released along with its findings.
Therefore, the committee did not sanction the institution with any penalties. Approaching the release of the infractions committee’s report, the university and its supporters feared the worst: postseason bans, the vacation of victories and, potentially, championships.
There was none of that. The infractions committee ruled, essentially, that it couldn’t determine that violations occurred in association with a long-running scheme of bogus African Studies courses, ones that UNC’s accrediting agency found lacked integrity.
“We believe this is the correct -- and fair -- outcome,” UNC Chancellor Carol Folt wrote in a letter to the campus community.
The NCAA’s investigation had focused on how those classes, which existed for 18 years, benefited athletes and helped them maintain their eligibility. The NCAA built its case not on allegations of academic fraud, though, but of impermissible benefits – the alleged special access to the courses, and not the courses themselves, central to the NCAA’s case.
The NCAA Committee on Infractions, an independent panel of which Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey presided as the chairman during UNC’s hearing, decided it couldn’t determine NCAA violations occurred. The infractions committee considered the NCAA Enforcement Staff’s case, and also considered whether UNC violated bylaws pertaining to academic fraud.
The only violations that the committee concluded in this case was that two former staff members in the African Studies Department – Julius Nyang’oro and Debby Crowder – failed to cooperate during the investigation. The university, meanwhile, was essentially found innocent of the other three charges it faced: those of impermissible benefits, lack of institutional control and failure to monitor.
“While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’ offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes,” Sankey said in a statement.
“The panel is troubled by the university’s shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus and the credibility of the Cadwalader report (commonly known as the Wainstein Report), which it distanced itself from after initially supporting the findings.
“However, NCAA policy is clear. The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership.”
Later, during a teleconference with reporters, Sankey said that it was “more likely than not” that UNC athletes received fraudulent credit in association with the courses at the heart of the case. Sankey also said it was “more likely than not” that members of the UNC athletic department steered athletes to those courses in effort to maintain their eligibility.
Still, Sankey said, the infractions committee could not tie those suspicions to violations, nor could it prove that UNC violated NCAA bylaws in association with the classes.
“That’s the reality,” Sankey said, after acknowledging that “the panel is in no way supporting what happened.”
In a statement the NCAA provided along with the public release of the infractions report, the infractions committee acknowledged that its ability to determine that NCAA violations related to academics was limited by the NCAA’s own rules, which are decided by its member schools.
“The panel noted that its ability to determine whether academic fraud occurred at UNC was limited by the NCAA principle relying on individual member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred,” the NCAA’s statement read.
The same statement said that UNC insisted that in the courses in question “the work was assigned, completed, turned in and graded … while the university admitted the courses failed to meet its own expectations and standards, the university maintained that the courses did not violate its policies at the time.”
The committee’s ruling was met with swift criticism among supporters of big-time, big-money college sports. One of the most common questions associated with the ruling: Given the lack of punishment, and what essentially amounted to a public acquittal, what’s to stop any other university from doing the same thing that happened for nearly two decades at UNC?
Considering the question, Sankey said, “I doubt any university wants to go through” what UNC did. He was referencing, perhaps, the years of uncertainty the university has endured, the specter of what the NCAA might do, the questions of how it might be penalized amid a scandal that some observers of college athletics compared to the worst in history.
At last, on Friday, there came an answer to the question of what the NCAA would do to UNC: Nothing.