A difficult start to the football season just got tougher for North Carolina, and that’s not even the Tar Heels’ biggest problem.
Monday’s announcement that 13 players will be suspended for selling their team-issued Air Jordans – nine of them for four games, including quarterback Chazz Surratt and three defensive ends – will leave ShoeNC short-handed during the brutal opening stretch of a pivotal season, even if it certainly could have been worse if more starters were involved.
More concerning is the continuing disregard for obvious NCAA rules, as silly as they may be, just when North Carolina’s football program was finally getting out from under years of NCAA punishment and investigation.
That’s the part that’s tough to pin down: This is, on the whole, a relatively minor violation, a blip compared to everything else North Carolina has been wrangling with over the past eight years, and thought it was done wrangling. But to be back in the stocks so quickly suggests that not enough care is being paid to the details of compliance. The only reason the university found out was because a fan reported what he saw on social media; the training the players received clearly didn’t get their attention.
Either way, it’s bad news for Larry Fedora, who desperately needs a bounceback season to get the program back on solid footing after last year’s debacle. Under normal circumstances, Fedora would be given plenty of leeway to sort things out. And he may still, and probably should, get it. But when you combine a stupid compliance black eye like this with Fedora’s strange conflation of football, patriotism and CTE denial at ACC football media days, suddenly Fedora’s position doesn’t look as secure as it should.
That doesn’t necessarily put him on the hot seat, even with the potential 1-3 or 0-4 start that seems increasingly possible given the players absent and a schedule that sees the Tar Heels jet west to play California, return home to go to East Carolina, then play Central Florida and Pittsburgh. But each one of these incidents that casts North Carolina in a negative light, self-inflicted or otherwise, uses up a little bit of cushion for another bad season.
It may not matter. Most of the players missing are reserves, and the defensive ends will have staggered suspensions so they won’t all be out at the same time. Surratt is the biggest name, but he was in a battle for the starting job with Nathan Elliott anyway. Whatever depth the Tar Heels are missing, they’ll at least have access to freshmen who wouldn’t otherwise be available thanks to the new redshirt rule that allows them to play in as many as four games without losing a season of eligibility. North Carolina may cruise through the opening month without a slip despite all of this.
Still, there’s the question no one is asking: Why do these players feel moved to sell these shoes in the first place? The answer is the same one that led basketball players to take money from shoe companies and launch an FBI investigation and a thousand hand-wringing NCAA subcommittees.
When you restrict the free market, the free market finds a way.
Basketball players have economic value. Football players have economic value. The NCAA system essentially steals it from them, diverting the money they generate to coaches and administrators and fancy facilities and boutiques that sell the same Nike and Jordan Brand gear the players just got penalized for selling.
If you’re not going to give college players a cut of the billions they generate up front, they’ll find another way to get it. Even if that means taking the relative pittance they get in the form of free gear and trying to turn it into cash.
Not that there’s any excuse for breaking one of the most obvious and basic NCAA rules there is, misguided as that rule may be. That’s just willful disregard on the part of the 13 players, who absolutely, positively should have known better, and should have had that drilled into them by a university that continues to run afoul of the NCAA despite itself.