The first day of UNC-Chapel Hill’s long-awaited appearance before the NCAA Committee on Infractions ended at 6:13 p.m. local time here on Wednesday, nearly 10 hours after it began inside of a guarded conference room in the Gaylord Opryland hotel.
The length of the hearing, which will continue on Thursday morning, was not considered unusual. The infractions committee set aside two days to hear arguments in this case, which focuses on the relationship between UNC’s athletic department and bogus African Studies courses.
UNC officials and their legal representatives left the hearing on Wednesday without comment, and they left without offering clues as to how the proceedings went. The university faces five Level I allegations, the NCAA’s most severe, including a lack of institutional control.
In addition to that charge, the most serious the university faces are that of the impermissible benefits charges the NCAA Enforcement Staff has tied to the courses at the heart of the investigation.
The NCAA has alleged that UNC’s athletic department leveraged its relationship with two former African Studies department employees, Julius Nyang’oro and Debby Crowder, to offer athletes special access to courses that didn’t meet, offered little instruction and required only a paper that usually received high grades regardless of quality.
UNC’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, found that the courses, which existed for 18 years, lacked integrity and violated six of its other principles. For that, the accrediting agency placed the university on probation for one year.
UNC and its legal team, though, has argued that the classes and the problems surrounding them do not constitute a violation of NCAA bylaws. That, undoubtedly, shaped a large part of the discussion during the hearing on Wednesday: the debate about how NCAA rules apply to what transpired at UNC.
The UNC officials who appeared in the hearing included chancellor Carol Folt and athletic director Bubba Cunningham. The infractions committee also requested the attendance of football coach Larry Fedora, women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell and men’s basketball coach Roy Williams.
None of those three coaches were charged with wrongdoing – and Fedora didn’t begin working at UNC until after the courses in question ended – but football and men’s basketball were referenced in the NCAA’s first allegation. The NCAA alleged that academically at-risk athletes in those sports used the courses at the heart of the investigation to help maintain their eligibility.
Fedora, Hatchell and Williams all attended the hearing, and did so accompanied by legal representation. Prominent Raleigh attorney Wade Smith represented Hatchell and Jim Cooney, a well-known Charlotte attorney, represented Williams.
Crowder, one of the key figures in the case, also attended, along with her attorney, Elliot Abrams. She was among the first to arrive on Wednesday morning, and she entered the hearing room about 10 to 15 minutes before Cunningham, Williams and UNC’s other coaches.
The hearing adjourned for about 45 minutes for lunch, and then continued into the afternoon. Finally, a door swung open a little after 6 p.m., and Fedora, dressed in a suit, carrying a brief case, briskly walked out. He was heading home, a UNC spokesman said later.
It was unclear whether Williams or Hatchell, or both, would return for the second day of the hearing. It is scheduled to begin at the same time, 8:30 a.m. local time, and there’s no indication of how long it might last, or what it might bring.
The infractions committee has the authority to reject parts of the enforcement staff’s case, or even add new charges. Penalties, and mitigating factors for such penalties, are also discussed during an infractions hearing, though they don’t become final until much later.
When UNC appeared before the infractions committee in 2011 amid a separate NCAA investigation into its football program, it took 136 days for the committee to issue its final ruling in the case. If this case follows a similar timeline, a final ruling might arrive in late December.