A year ago, North Carolina’s run to the championship game felt like the Tar Heels were living on borrowed time. The NCAA’s case against the university had been moving slowly through the process, like a python digesting a muskrat, but surely the end couldn’t be far off.
There was even a sense that the Tar Heels’ quest for redemption might be stalled before it began, with the case’s timeline pointing toward a summer of major developments, perhaps even moving toward a resolution.
That outlook seems as naive as it does dated.
North Carolina is back in the Final Four, facing Oregon in Saturday’s second semifinal, and the NCAA’s process is no closer to resolution than it was last year. It may even be farther away, given the latest exchange of rhetorical volleys between the school and governing body and the university’s continuing position that before it even disputes the charges, it will dispute the NCAA’s right to even bring those charges.
Throw in the latest developments, with Debbie Crowder emerging out of witness protection to further muddy the waters, and there is literally no one who has any idea when – or if – this might ever be resolved.
Players were asked about the scandal and ongoing NCAA investigation this week, and they had absolutely nothing to say, and why would they? The investigation was active when they committed, while they played and will still be going after they’re gone. The scandal has been relevant to them only in the sense that they heard about it from rival coaches during the recruiting process. They have spent their entire careers wondering if punishment was coming, and the seniors will play their final game this weekend, one way or another, without seeing the process come to an end.
As North Carolina continues to dodge and weave with the NCAA on legal technicalities and jurisdictional issues – just as it dodged and weaved with the facts until the Wainstein Report finally put an end to that – it becomes increasingly clear that this will be a fight to the academic death, that whatever end result is reached with the NCAA will only be preamble to a lengthy and expensive court battle, Folt et al v. Emmert et al, or something of that ilk.
All that despite the obvious reality that only the most blue-dyed North Carolina fan could read the Wainstein Report and not accept that the university was in the wrong to some degree between mild and grotesque, by the spirit of NCAA rules if not the letter.
To paraphrase Elmore Leonard: “You’re trying to tell me you screwed up without sounding stupid, and that’s hard to do.”
Ah, but the NCAA bears its share of the blame here too, from its initial unwillingness to get involved as evidence mounted to, more recently, enabling an absolutely fabulous conflict of interest with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey serving as chairman of the Committee on Infractions – essentially, judge and prosecutor both in UNC’s case.
Which isn’t to suggest any nefarious intent on Sankey’s part whatsoever, but this tournament has outlined just how much Sankey could potentially benefit if the tournament is played without North Carolina in a very tangible way that a random athletic director of a random school would not. The Tar Heels already have eliminated two SEC teams and could, potentially, face a third in the championship game. That’s $3.2 million that went to the ACC instead of the SEC in those two games alone, one of which saw the Tar Heels deny the SEC champion a trip to the Final Four.
Unlike last year, there’s no sense that judgment of any kind is imminent. Whatever happens Saturday, whatever happens Monday if the Tar Heels advance, will have no sense of finality for anyone other than the players. The NCAA has been dealing with North Carolina in one way or another since 2010, and it may be dealing with North Carolina in one way or another for another seven years or more.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock