The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s response to the NCAA’s allegations of rules violations has an echo of banks in the financial crisis: The abuses are too broad to be sanctioned.
That’s the gist of the university’s legalistic and penalty-dodging response to charges related to one of the most extensive abuses ever of college athletes’ academic eligibility requirements. UNC isn’t saying it didn’t happen. It’s saying that the system of phony classes happened within the university’s academic side and involved athletes as well as non-athletes and therefore presents an issue beyond the NCAA’s scope. Instead, UNC says, the most serious abuses cited by the NCAA should properly be addressed by the university’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
This is UNC’s effort to get out from under the jurisdiction of the NCAA, which could impose costly and humiliating penalties, and place itself before the judgment of an accrediting agency. But there’s more involved here than the university’s shopping for a gentler jurisdiction. UNC’s legalistic hair-splitting could undermine the NCAA’s already flimsy system of requiring that athletes be genuine students, or at least make an effort to act like such.
It’s regrettable and discouraging that a great state university has chosen evasion rather than accountability in this whole sorry matter. But it risks an even more serious failing if its defense is successful. That would establish a precedent of immunity from NCAA sanctions for blatant abuses of the curriculum that overwhelmingly benefit athletes. This isn’t about the NCAA assessing class quality. It’s about the NCAA responding to athletes enrolled in classes that effectively were not classes. That made those athletes effectively not students and therefore ineligible to play NCAA sports.
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The NCAA’s most serious charge against UNC is lack of institutional control. The charge is clearly merited. UNC officials either initiated, tolerated or failed to detect a system of phony classes overseen by a nonfaculty member. The classes were offered for nearly two decade and involved some 3,000 students – half of them athletes. That’s evidence of an institution that lacks control of education and athletic eligibility. That’s a matter for accreditation agencies, yes, but also emphatically for the NCAA.
UNC could have led the way in establishing a healthier academic-athletic balance in college sports by fully admitting the abuses, imposing its own penalties and accepting whatever sanctions the NCAA saw fit. Instead, it has sought to defend itself by trying to limit the reach of its athletics regulator.
The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions should look past the legalisms UNC raises and do what’s right. When a school lacks institutional control of its athletes’ education, it should be punished accordingly.