North Carolina’s response to the NCAA can be summed up in four words: “None of your business.”
North Carolina is on the verge of beating the NCAA at its own game. The response argues that the NCAA has no jurisdiction and has violated its own rules long before the university ever gets around to actually responding to any of the allegations – which it does with almost casual dismissiveness.
Above it all hangs the existential question of the NCAA’s very mission, one it has never been able to adequately answer: Can it really claim any jurisdiction over academics?
North Carolina’s response is essentially an ultimatum to the NCAA to answer that question, because it knows the answer has to be “no.”
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It’s a blatant a challenge to the NCAA’s authority as you’ll ever find, its impact diluted by the anodyne language college athletics loves to use in matters of compliance and governance, but aggressive nonetheless.
Having used the NCAA’s own process to frame this entire debate as having nothing to do with academic fraud – a neatly and cleverly lawyered outflanking, with a tip of the cap here to Rick Evrard, the former NCAA investigator turned NCAA enforcement Kryptonite whose name appears on the cover sheet – all those years where the university presidents who run the NCAA fretted about interfering in “curriculum” have inadvertently left the NCAA powerless to deal with this.
The NCAA desperately needs to find a way to punish North Carolina, because otherwise there’s nothing stopping schools from setting up Potemkin departments for athletes, essentially professionalizing them, with only a token nod toward the “student” in “student-athlete.” But the NCAA’s own process and North Carolina’s lawyers have left the NCAA with very little room to act.
Once North Carolina realized the NCAA gave it the power to categorize what happened, the door was open to make everything go away by defining it as something the NCAA not only wouldn’t but couldn’t punish.
The enforcement staff apparently thought it had things figured out in the original Notice of Allegations, which contained language defining the classes in question as impermissible benefits, something for which North Carolina could be punished. The university succeeded, after a delay of some months, in having those allegations removed from the revised notice.
North Carolina’s case, as it has been for some time, is that this is merely an issue of pedagogy, best handled by (toothless) accrediting agencies. To read UNC’s response, you’d really wonder what the big deal was, anyway. “Core academic issues of course structure, content and administrative oversight … are not the proper subject of an NCAA enforcement action,” the university writes, and of course, who would argue with that?
Even if the NCAA wanted to call it academic fraud, it leaves that decision up to the university. North Carolina continues to refer to “anomalous” classes, like a stray professor slept through a lecture or forgot to grade a midterm. This is actually a much bigger scandal that involved many people finding many devious ways to keep many athletes eligible over many years, but that’s not what’s in the amended Notice of Allegations.
Anyone who has read the Wainstein Report knows what happened at North Carolina was more than “course structure, content and administrative oversight.” But the NCAA lets schools define the playing field on academics, and North Carolina has put the goalposts where it knows it can win.
North Carolina has out-NCAA’d the NCAA, out bureaucracied the bureaucrats.
Typically, in this phase of the process, a school self-imposes penalties in an attempt to plea-bargain a minimal level of punishment. In 2011, during the football scandal that initiated the discovery of the much deeper academic scandal, North Carolina vacated wins and reduced scholarships as it threw itself upon the mercy of the NCAA.
Tuesday, the self-imposed punishments were the most telling part of North Carolina’s response.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock