UNC Now

Why Louisville’s punishment has no bearing on UNC’s NCAA problems

Is there a reason for coach Roy Williams and UNC to be down after Louisville’s NCAA ruling? Probably not.
Is there a reason for coach Roy Williams and UNC to be down after Louisville’s NCAA ruling? Probably not. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Louisville received the verdict on Thursday for an NCAA infractions case that involved strippers and sex acts, and it’s not good: the university is likely to lose its 2013 national championship in men’s basketball, and coach Rick Pitino has been suspended for five ACC games next season.

Those are the highlights of the sanctions Louisville is facing. The NCAA Committee on Infractions also placed the university on probation for four years, and four years’ worth of men’s basketball victories, between December 2010 through the spring of 2014, are at risk of being vacated. Louisville will appeal the ruling, and Pitino told reporters on Thursday that the NCAA has it all wrong.

One of the immediate questions for now, though, is what all of this means for North Carolina, which is in the midst of its own NCAA investigation. UNC recently responded to a third Notice of Allegations in the NCAA’s long-running investigation into how bogus African Studies classes benefited athletes over a range of years.

From UNC’s perspective, is there anything to be gleaned from how the Committee on Infractions treated Louisville? And if Louisville’s 2013 national championship is at risk, what does that mean for UNC’s men’s basketball titles in 2005 and 2009, both of which fall in the nine-year window that has been the focal point of the NCAA’s investigation?

Some questions and answers:

Q. Should UNC be more worried about a banner coming down after what happened to Louisville?

A. No more worried than it was before Thursday. While it’s fair to wonder about the penalties UNC will ultimately receive, it’d be a stretch to infer that UNC’s national championships are more in danger now because Louisville’s 2013 championship is likely to be vacated (the NCAA is leaving it up to Louisville to determine in what games ineligible players competed).

The NCAA cases at Louisville and UNC differ in a lot of ways and one of the most important differences is this: at Louisville, basketball players who received “impermissible inducements, offers and/or extra benefits” (that’s the NCAA’s jargon) have been ruled retroactively ineligible.

That means that, according to NCAA rules, the games that those athletes played should be vacated. That’s why the 2013 national championship is in jeopardy. It will be vacated, presumably, because Louisville had ineligible players competing in it.

At UNC, meanwhile, the NCAA has never made the case, in any of its three notices, that UNC used ineligible athletes in competition in any sport, or that the participation in the classes in question would make an athlete ineligible.

Historically, that has been the standard for vacating records – the use of ineligible athletes in competition. The NCAA has never accused UNC of doing so, and proving that an athlete who took one of the bogus African studies should have been ineligible is likely an impossible task.

Q: So does that mean UNC doesn’t have to worry about losing a national championship?

A: Not necessarily. If there’s one thing UNC’s NCAA case has proven it’s this: The NCAA operates in its own world, and within its own rules, and that world and those rules can change, seemingly at a whim, to try to adapt to unique circumstances that might present themselves.

The UNC case is unlike any the NCAA has ever investigated. UNC’s most fervent allies and supporters will argue that the case doesn’t fit into the NCAA rule book, and therefore that the issues within aren’t subject to NCAA jurisdiction. UNC’s harshest critics will argue that what happened was an egregious form of academic malpractice used to keep academically at-risk athletes eligible, and that UNC must face punishment to preserve the supposed integrity of the college sports model.

Clearly, the NCAA has had a difficult time applying its rules to the case, given that we’re now on a third NOA. It’s just as clear, though, that the NCAA hasn’t been dissuaded from pursuing the case, and that it has devoted years of resources to it.

What any of that means for UNC’s ultimate sanctions is unknown. Louisville attempted to mitigate its penalties by self-imposing a postseason ban and it sat out the ACC and NCAA tournaments in 2016, and after that now the university finds its 2013 national championship in peril. UNC hasn’t self-imposed any penalties, and won’t, and sport-by-sport sanctions at UNC remain impossible to project with any degree of confidence.

Q. Yeah, but isn’t what happened at UNC “worse” than what happened at Louisville?

A. The cases, again, are completely, vastly different – so different that a comparison isn’t even all that worthwhile of an exercise. But since we’re here …

One involved long-running academic malfeasance, which the NCAA alleges helped academically at-risk athletes maintain their eligibility. One involved a director of basketball operations arranging, in the NCAA’s words, “adult entertainment, sex acts and/or cash” for at least 17 men’s basketball players and/or players who were being recruited, among others.

Which is “worse” is a matter of opinion, and perspective, but it’s undeniable that the cases contrast in a number of important ways, the most important of which probably is this: the wrongdoing at Louisville was confined to the men’s basketball program, while at UNC it funneled, in a kind of nebulous way that has made it difficult for the NCAA to prosecute, through a number of sports and departments.

In the Louisville case, the NCAA brought charges of misconduct against Andre McGee, a former program assistant and director of men’s basketball operations; Brandon Williams, another former program assistant in men’s basketball; and Pitino, the Hall of Fame head coach.

At UNC, meanwhile, no coach in any sport has faced an allegation of misconduct. The only person associated with a team who faces any charge in the UNC case is Jan Boxill, a former women’s basketball academic counselor charged with providing extra benefits in the form of impermissible academic assistance and special arrangements.

And even then, the allegations surrounding Boxill aren’t central to the larger investigation into how the African Studies courses in question benefited athletes over a range of years. The other two individuals who face NCAA charges at UNC are Julius Nyang’oro, the former African Studies department chair, and his longtime former assistant, Debby Crowder.

And so what does this all mean? It means that there aren’t many comparisons to be made between what happened at Louisville and what happened at UNC.

One case was limited to one sport, and one wasn’t. In one case a head coach and two members of his staff were charged with committing violations, and in the other case no coach in any sport face charges. Indeed, UNC might well face severe punishment from the NCAA Committee on Infractions. If it does, though, it won’t have anything to do with what happened to Louisville on Thursday.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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