Honor matters – but maybe not at Chapel Hill

A steady stream of visitors and students visit the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus on Friday, October 13, 2017 after the NCAA issued their judgement saying they could not conclude academic violations in their case against UNC.
A steady stream of visitors and students visit the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus on Friday, October 13, 2017 after the NCAA issued their judgement saying they could not conclude academic violations in their case against UNC. rwillett@newsobserver.com

I attended UNC, graduating in 1992 and spending the next 22 years on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. I watched UNC sports from locations such as Bosnia, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, clinging to my loyalty to my alma mater as a link to home and pleasant memories of college life. I celebrated the return to modest glory of our football team, the clockwork successes of field hockey and women’s soccer, the resurgence of baseball to its proper status as a national contender.

Of course, Carolina basketball could always be counted on to compete, with national championships during my military career in 2005 and 2009. I even recall waking up at 4 a.m. and trudging through the windswept sand of Iraq across my camp to watch the Heels lose to Kansas in the 2008 semifinals. Carolina, for me, was a transformative growth experience, even if I did not fully realize it for years to come. And today, more than at any time of my life, I am ashamed of my university and the reaction of its community, celebrating our bare escape from the self-perceived tyrannical clutches of the NCAA.

The headlines oversimplify the NCAA’s rationale for issuing no punishment. Those not interested in thinking hard claim exoneration, decry the NCAA for dragging out the process and try to point out that whatever sins of which UNC was guilty, they are probably doing something worse at Duke. But a close read of the NCAA’s decision should cause more shame than celebration – if we really believe in the university as an institution of higher learning and not just a club which helped us get our first jobs and serves as common ground for basketball parties and business transactions.

The key finding by the NCAA is this: After thousands of students took advantage of an unethical professor and secretary who administered nonexistent paper classes and handed out unearned grades, the NCAA observed that Carolina’s position was to embrace that academic sham as a legitimate class.

Carol Cartwright, co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and a member of the NCAA Infractions Committee, talks about UNC pivoting from accepting the term "academic fraud" to claiming the courses were legitimate courses.

A singular principle allowed UNC room to make its claims and, ultimately, limited the panel’s ability to conclude that academic fraud occurred. Since 2014, the NCAA membership has acknowledged that the question of whether academic fraud occurred is one appropriately answered by institutions based on their own academic policies. The membership trusts academic entities to hold themselves accountable and report academic fraud to the NCAA and has chosen to constrain who decides what constitutes academic fraud. Because of this limitation, UNC’s decision to support the courses as legitimate combined with a stale and incomplete record that does not allow the panel to drill down to the course and assignment level – even if the panel had wanted to second-guess the courses – it cannot conclude academic fraud occurred.

In other words, the NCAA could have burned UNC to the ground with sanctions but for the fact that UNC stood by the position that a sham class, which students did not attend and for which shoddy work resulted in acceptable marks papering the grading files, complied with Carolina’s own standards. It is not that academic fraud did not occur. It is that the NCAA is bound by the university’s determination on this pretend class meeting its own standards. That is humiliating, and should sting us all, and particularly those who attended and graduated.

Honesty matters, but the Carolina administration has decided sports matters more. As a business decision, the university’s decision is probably the right one. Not fighting the NCAA and failing to advance the clever arguments that the class was dreadful but met the university’s standards and was available to everyone could have set the athletic programs, particularly men’s basketball, back years.

Watch University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams describe his reactions to the news that the NCAA would have no sanctions for UNC in the wake of their long-running investigation into academic issues.

Vacating a championship, imposing a television or postseason ban, or sacrificing scholarships would have made it more difficult to recruit blue-chippers, and could have resulted in UNC being noncompetitive for years against Duke, Virginia, Notre Dame and other rising conference powerhouses. Only now are USC and Penn State managing to fight their way back to football prominence, having suffered crippling sanctions, post-Reggie Bush and post-Sandusky. Imagine all the money USC and Penn State left on the table in those intervening years. Ethics and honor can be expensive.

UNC and the community that supports our treasured university need to figure out where integrity fits in to this whole picture. It is not enough that our university dodged a bullet. This near-miss needs to drive more self-reflection on what it means to be a flagship public university. Since arriving as a freshman, I have heard the Chapel Hill faithful describe Carolina as a “public Ivy.” That is some high-minded self-praise, and if it is true, we need to start figuring out how to live up to it. Lux, libertas indeed.

Butch Bracknell was a career Marine and is now an international law attorney for a major international organization.