Luke DeCock

Battle lines between UNC, NCAA never drawn more sharply – DeCock

We’re headed for a showdown now. There’s no way around it. Whatever happens to North Carolina, whether the university is punished by the NCAA or wriggles off the hook, the battle lines have never been drawn more sharply. After five years, judgment is coming.

Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner and chairman of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, has said he wants a hearing in August. North Carolina’s response to the NCAA’s third Notice of Allegations, released Thursday, makes it clear that the university intends to fight the NCAA’s jurisdiction on every front.

That’s the tone UNC took with its response to the second notice, back in August, and its resolve has only sharpened in this one, not only continuing to lodge objections over the NCAA’s ability to even bring the allegations, but going, at times, sentence by sentence to rebut the evidence offered.

That’s where the divide continues to fall both inside and outside the halls of the NCAA, between those who believe the scandal at North Carolina had an impact on how competitive its athletic teams were (as the NCAA clearly does, based on the way the allegations were strengthened from the second notice to the third) and those who believe the scandal was merely academic by NCAA standards (as the university continues to posit, an echo of how it hid behind the Martin Report).

The university even indulged in the trendy gambit of blaming the media. So au courant. The blame is placed squarely on a “public narrative for the last six years, popularized by media accounts” for the trouble North Carolina is in with the NCAA.

Presumably, that “public narrative” includes statements like this one: “Many of these student-athletes were referred to these classes by academic counselors … (who) saw these classes – and their artificially high grades – as key to helping academically-challenged student-athletes remain eligible.” That’s from the pen of potential future FBI director Kenneth Wainstein, on page 2 of a report the university all but disavows in this latest response to the NCAA.

It remains a cynical defense, one predicated on legalese and semantics and technicalities and straw men (“media accounts”), which is revealing because when it serves North Carolina’s purposes to be contrite, as the university was when the Wainstein Report was released or in negotiating with its academic accreditors, the university has no trouble being contrite. When the Wainstein Report is a complication, it tries to lawyer its way out from under it.

Begging for forgiveness with one hand while slapping away the NCAA with the other, it makes you wonder whether the university, collectively, really feels any guilt at all for this cancer that rotted within for so long. Either way, the scandal remains an embarrassing stain on North Carolina’s reputation whether it technically violated NCAA bylaws or not.

The NCAA believes it did. North Carolina refuses to entertain the notion.

“The fundamental issue in our case is that NCAA bylaws cover athletics matters, not how academics are managed,” North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said Thursday.

That defiance now has the university at risk of facing harsh penalties, since the scale of the third set of allegations opens the door for pretty much everything in the NCAA’s bag of tricks. North Carolina probably could have gotten away with a slap on the wrist had it decided to work with the more moderate second notice of allegations, a watered-down version of the first and third that offered a road map to minimal sanction.

Instead, the university went scorched earth with the NCAA, and in this latest response that position has only been hardened.

With that being the case, some kind of end is in sight. The NCAA will issue its own response to UNC’s response in July. The hearing is likely in August, with resolution to come months after that.

But the case is going to be heard, finally. The issues, never more starkly defined, will be argued. North Carolina faces the difficult task of winning over an infractions committee that is both judge and prosecutor, but the university’s position is clear, even if its conscience shouldn’t be, no matter what the NCAA decides.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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