Ned Barnett

At UNC, a hollow victory over the NCAA

FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2017, file photo, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, head of the NCAA infraction panel handling North Carolina's ongoing academic case, arrives at an NCAA hearing in Nashville, Tenn. Sankey says it's "more likely than not" that UNC athletes received fraudulent credit, but the organization's bylaws leave it to the schools themselves to determine academic fraud. He added that the panel could not use "those strong possibilities" to determine whether violations occurred."
FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2017, file photo, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, head of the NCAA infraction panel handling North Carolina's ongoing academic case, arrives at an NCAA hearing in Nashville, Tenn. Sankey says it's "more likely than not" that UNC athletes received fraudulent credit, but the organization's bylaws leave it to the schools themselves to determine academic fraud. He added that the panel could not use "those strong possibilities" to determine whether violations occurred." AP

Here’s an idea for solving two controversies at once at UNC-Chapel Hill: Take down the Confederate soldier statue known as Silent Sam and put up one of Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

Call it Silent Sankey, a monument to a different Lost Cause, the doomed effort to maintain amateurism and integrity in major college football and basketball.

The long-awaited report from Sankey and his committee released Friday basically said the NCAA has nothing to say about phony classes that enrolled hundreds of UNC athletes over the course of 18 years. It said academic fraud is outside of its Bible-thick book of rules and it would let the university essentially go unpunished.

The committee said in its report: “The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership.”

The NCAA’s decision not to impose serious penalties is a victory for UNC-CH, but it is hardly an absolution. Indeed, winning this contest has meant the defeat of so much else the university valued. Its wins and championship banners were spared. Its reputation wasn’t.

In a way, the NCAA’s decision not to punish was itself an indictment. The regulatory body of college athletics said, in effect, it can penalize violations of the rules, but when a university violates itself as a legitimate university, that’s a failure beyond the NCAA’s scope. That is properly the concern of accrediting agencies that determine whether an institution of higher learning has broken faith with the standards – largely based on honor and tradition – that define a true university.

To escape NCAA sanctions, UNC accepted and reinforced this indictment. A place built on the pursuit of truth dodged it, denied it, withheld it, distorted it. When the presence of the phony classes surfaced, mostly because of the dogged reporting of The News & Observer’s Dan Kane, UNC should have admitted the problem, rooted out its causes, dismissed those who knew or should have known and imposed penalties on itself. Instead, it spent millions of dollars on lawyers and public relations people. It sponsored the Martin report, which turned out to be a whitewash, then disavowed the Wainstein report after it revealed the full extent of the fraud.

There’s a long list of people who should have been more accountable including chancellors, provosts, athletic directors, coaches, faculty who monitor athletics, academic support people and former players who know the full extent of the fraud and haven’t come forward. Former basketball star Rashad McCants, who said he made dean’s list in the spring of 2005 despite not attending any classes, is one of the few voices of truth in the whole sordid mess.

McCants, a key member of UNC’s 2005 national championship team, told ESPN in 2014. “I thought it was a part of the college experience, just like ‘He Got Game’ or ‘Blue Chips’ you get to college, you don’t go to class, you don’t do nothing, you just show up and play. That’s exactly how it was.”

One who is not absolved by the NCAA’s nonaction is McCants’ coach, Roy Williams. The hall-of-famer is the most prominent figure in UNC athletics but he reduced himself to a marginal and remote role in the matter of the phony classes. Williams’ claim that he thought the classes his players were taking in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies were legitimate may well be true. But it’s disturbing that he didn’t make it his business to know why so many of his players were enrolled in those classes.

When Williams learned his players weren’t getting a UNC education, indeed weren’t getting any education in some classes, he should have expressed outrage that his players were shortchanged. Instead, he said the classes were officially approved, his players “did the work,” as little as it was, and he was not responsible because he didn’t know.

Welcome to the new Carolina Way. Once it was considered the high road in college athletics. Now it may be a precedent that opens the low road to others.

UNC avoided penalties, but it will have to live with the way it did that. In that sense, Silent Sankey, for years to come, will speak volumes.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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