The weight of an NCAA investigation was lifted from the shoulders of the University of North Carolina athletes, faculty, staff and fans on Oct. 13. But the media, and the collective college sports community, had few kind words in the wake of the ruling.
The NCAA was considering questionable classes that enrolled many scholarship athletes and allegedly helped keep student athletes eligible. The NCAA ruled that “while student athletes likely benefited from the courses, so did the general student body. Additionally, the record did not establish that the university created and offered the courses as part of a systemic effort to benefit only student athletes.”
With the conclusion of the investigation that covered nearly two decades of the “paper classes,” the NCAA “exhausted the last available measure of accountability for what was arguably the most pervasive academic fraud at a major research university in at least a generation,” wrote Jack Stripling, of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The academic and athletic leaders of the university “were largely unscathed by a scandal that mostly implicated lower-level employees.” After a damning independent investigation that concluded in 2014, the university disciplined or fired seven people.
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Some, like James Warren of the Poynter Institute, went so far as to assert that the NCAA sought to bury UNC’s scandal brought to light by North Carolina journalists, along with those at major national outlets, including The New York Times.
“The NCAA did not dispute that the University of North Carolina was guilty of running one of the worst academic fraud schemes in college sports history, involving fake classes that enabled dozens of athletes to gain and maintain their eligibility,” wrote Marc Tracy of the Times.
Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel called UNC’s argument “perhaps the most outlandish defense in NCAA infractions history.”
UNC was playing chess against the NCAA’s checkers, wrote Jason Kirk at SB Nation.
“The school acknowledged that the classes that were taken were essentially bankrupt of any kind of teaching, learning or supervision ... but that was perfectly OK with them. To defend the basketball team, the university had to claim it wasn’t really a university. Sure, they took a shotgun to their academic credibility, but, hey, those championship banners get to stay. The truth is, alums probably care more about hoops anyway.”
The case was an emotional one for college hoops fans, wrote John Clay of The Lexington Herald-Leader.
“To them, instead of the vaunted ‘Carolina Way’ of doing things, the school was accused of using fake classes to keep players eligible for more than a decade. Therefore, it had to be punished. The NCAA must show that no school was untouchable, etc. This was a test case. (And the NCAA failed miserably. Again.)”
The NCAA “is useless,” wrote Yahoo Sports columnist Pat Forde.
“Let history record this as the week the NCAA completed its descent from flawed to failed,” Forde wrote. “The governing body of college sports is useless when it comes to policing itself. Mall cops think the NCAA is soft on crime. ... You can almost hear their faith in college athletics leaking.”
The Tar Heels skated on a technicality and exploited a loophole, Forde wrote.
“They skated. The ruling was immediately hated. And the NCAA’s impotence can no longer be debated.”
And the hits against the NCAA kept coming, with David Teel of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., hammering the organization as “powerless to sanction rampant academic fraud.”
Teel argued that “even the most ardent Tar Heel” should be outraged by the fraud the university admitted.
“More than a decade of academic fraud cost UNC athletics little more than legal fees and public respect,” Teel wrote.
The ruling went in favor of UNC’s attorneys, rather than the spirit of the game so beloved by fans, Clay wrote: “North Carolina lawyers 1, college basketball fans 0.”
UNC didn’t just pull back the curtain on college athletics. The university “doused it with gasoline and lit it aflame,” Kirk wrote. “Those championship banners sure look pretty, though.”
One piece, by Jason Kirk at SB Nation, suggested starting a university and setting up “a ton of these ‘paper courses.’”
“What’s stopping a school from setting up a similar “paper course” and making sure it’s open to all students, then sending athletes through it?” Kirk wrote.
Teel agreed: “If (a university) is willing to risk backlash from accreditation agencies, alumni, donors, fans and legislators, then create all the basket-weaving classes you’d like for the student body.”
Some felt that UNC was always going to “get away with it” or “get off” in the investigation, including Mark Titus of The Ringer, who wrote that it should “come as no surprise” for those who followed the case from the outset that UNC “was let off the hook.”
“North Carolina never got its day of reckoning for facilitating the most widespread academic scandal in the history of college sports,” Titus wrote. “North Carolina’s basketball program was never going to get the harsh punishment that many college basketball fans thought it deserved. In fact, if the NCAA had punished the men’s basketball program at all, Carolina would have appealed and likely would’ve won.”
“How in the hell did North Carolina get away with this?”
The cost of being spared by the NCAA was the university’s academic integrity, wrote Ryan McGee, of ESPN. Academic integrity “was laid on a sacrificial altar and gutted for the sake of saving hoops.”
The editorial board of The Wilmington Star-News argued that if UNC “can get away with this, it appears that under the NCAA, it can get away with anything.”
But despite damning evidence, that doesn’t mean that the NCAA could have done anything about it, some argued.
The NCAA handed UNC a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, but that doesn’t mean the NCAA is at fault and UNC should get off scot-free, according to Michael Rosenberg, of Sports Illustrated.
“There are no heroes here,” Rosenberg wrote. “Nobody ... is screaming that justice was served. There is still a lot of shame in this case. But that shame belongs to North Carolina, not the infractions committee.”
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and there is a ton of smoke coming from the Carolina men’s basketball program in this case,” Titus wrote. “But until someone in the men’s basketball program is spotted holding the matches and jug of gasoline, there’s not much that the NCAA can do.”