Roy knew, all right.
He knew he didn’t have much to worry about, after all, amid an NCAA investigation into a scheme of suspect African and Afro-American Studies courses that predated by 10 years his arrival at North Carolina.
For nearly a year, UNC coach Roy Williams had said as much – that neither he nor his men’s basketball program nor anyone associated with it was named in the original notice of allegations that the NCAA delivered to UNC last May. He had said that there were no allegations against men’s basketball.
Even so, it was something of a matter of semantics. Men’s basketball, after all, did appear in the original NOA, though Williams was correct that his program wasn’t specifically charged with wrongdoing. Now, though, it’s not semantics: There’s no mention of men’s basketball in the amended NOA UNC received on Monday.
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So one of the primary takeaways is this: Roy knew, it turned out, that his program wasn’t a target of the NCAA investigation. And, for that matter, so did Larry. Because like Williams, UNC football coach Larry Fedora has been saying the same thing: His program wouldn’t be affected by the investigation – nothing to see here.
Men’s basketball and football were both named in the original NOA. No, the sports didn’t face specific allegations and no coaches in those sports faced specific allegations and no members of the support staffs involved with those sports faced specific allegations.
But still they were there, in the details of allegation No. 5, which charged UNC with a lack of institutional control. That lack of institutional control “allowed individuals within ASPSA (academic support program for student-athletes) to use these courses through special arrangements to maintain the eligibility of academically at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.”
That passage was never the same thing as charging men’s basketball and football with violations. And yet it was there, nonetheless, a concerning mention – for people at UNC – of the two most visible programs on campus, and a mention that appeared to make those programs vulnerable to sanctions. Or so the hope went for outspoken critics and fans of rival schools.
Now that mention is gone. The words “men’s basketball” don’t appear in the amended NOA. Same for the word “football.” The lack of institutional control charge remains, but no specific sports are cited amid the broader allegation. Instead there’s a reference to how “student-athletes had increased exposure” to the suspect AFAM courses.
So what does it mean that men’s basketball and football aren’t named in the amended NOA? Perhaps it’s best to start with what it doesn’t mean: that those sports are in the clear when it comes to sanctions and penalties.
The NCAA Committee on Infractions, which is the judge and jury in major NCAA infractions cases, is an unpredictable bunch, and the amended NOA is written broadly enough to leave interpretation into how the infractions committee might decide penalties.
So the amended NOA doesn’t exactly liberate men’s basketball and football from the specter of penalties. Even so, though, the likelihood that men’s basketball and football would face significant sanctions – postseason bans, vacated victories and championships – appears much less likely now.
That never appeared to be a strong possibility, anyway, given the structure of the first notice. The amended notice makes it appear even more improbable that, say, UNC’s men’s basketball national championships are at risk, or that a postseason ban is coming for football or men’s basketball.
Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, wouldn’t go that far when he spoke with reporters on Monday during a teleconference. He often repeated his talking points, that he was focused on the five Level 1 violations outlined in the amended NOA, and that he wouldn’t speculate on sanctions.
Asked whether the amended NOA provided more confidence that men’s basketball and football aren’t at risk for significant penalties Cunningham said, “Speculating on sanctions is just something I cannot do. Five Level 1s, lack of institutional control, failure to monitor – those are significant charges.
“So, again, I just want to focus on the ones we have in front of us.”
And Cunningham is right: UNC faces significant charges. They’ll likely result in significant penalties: a large fine, perhaps, and, presumably, years of probation and a loss of scholarships spread over multiple sports.
But while the broader penalties that UNC faces could be significant, it appears the penalties against men’s basketball and football won’t be. It was difficult after UNC received the original NOA last May, to make an argument that those sports were in danger of serious sanctions. It’s almost impossible now.
And so that’s one way the amended NOA affects UNC’s most high-profile sports. Another: Williams and Fedora can say, with even more confidence, that their sports aren’t named in the allegations. They’d both been saying that since UNC received the original notice.
Critics and fans of rival schools were quick to point out, though, that men’s basketball and football did indeed appear in the allegations as sports whose athletes benefited from the lack of institutional control. Rival coaches undoubtedly used mention of those sports against UNC in recruiting.
The appearance of men’s basketball and football in the first notice always left room for interpretation. There’s no such room now: They’re simply not there. Regardless of how often men’s basketball and football appear in the factual information behind the allegations, the sports are nowhere to be found in the allegations themselves. It’s black and white.
There is confusion, now, about how exactly this transpired. The NCAA Enforcement Staff appears to have backtracked.
Men’s basketball and football, some are quick to point out, had the greatest percentage of athletes enrolled in the suspect AFAM classes. Under Williams alone, for instance, men’s basketball players accounted for 167 enrollments in the suspect AFAM courses that are at the heart of the investigation. Between 1999 and 2011, football players accounted for 963 enrollments in those classes.
Some look at those numbers and wonder how men’s basketball and football couldn’t be subject to significant NCAA sanctions. The answer is this: The act of taking one of those courses never constituted an NCAA violation, according to the NCAA Enforcement Staff.
One of the primary questions before the NCAA delivered the first NOA last May was whether the Enforcement Staff would charge UNC with academic fraud. It didn’t. Instead, the NCAA levied a broad, unwieldy impermissible benefits charge, which attempted to argue that special arrangements associated with enrolling in the courses represented an impermissible benefit.
That impermissible benefits charge, like the mention of men’s basketball and football, disappeared from the amended notice. A new charge – failure to monitor the ASPSA and AFAM departments, as well as Jan Boxill, the former women’s basketball academic counselor and philosophy instructor who is charged with providing extra benefits – appeared in the amended notice.
Another important difference between the original NOA and the amended one is that the timeline shrunk. In the original NOA, the lack of institutional control charge referenced the duration of the suspect AFAM classes – the 18 years between 1993 and 2011. The amended notice, meanwhile, alleges the failure to monitor violation occurred between the fall of 2005 and summer of 2011.
The lack of institutional control charge appears to use the same timeline. It’s a timeline that begins months after UNC won the 2005 national championship in men’s basketball. When the NCAA investigation began in the summer of 2014, the security of the 2005 championship was among the primary questions.
If any championship was going to be vacated, after all, that one appeared like a prime candidate. Ten players on that team majored in AFAM and years later Williams told Kenneth Wainstein, the independent investigator UNC hired, that he felt “uneasy,” as Wainstein put it, that so many of his players in his early years at UNC were enrolled in AFAM courses and majoring in AFAM.
If the lack of mention of men’s basketball hadn’t already, the new timeline in the amended NOA appears to remove any doubt about the 2005 national championship. It’s difficult to envision the Committee on Infractions vacating a championship outside the range of years in which an alleged violation occurred – without allegations, even, against the sport in question.
Still, it’s impossible to predict what the NCAA Committee on Infractions might do. Or what it might not do. Yet the amended NOA sure makes it look like Williams and Fedora were right all along – that men’s basketball and football would bear little, if any, of the brunt of a long-running investigation.