The endgame for UNC and the NCAA is nothing to cheer about for anyone

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For the University of North Carolina, seven years of scrutiny by the governing body of collegiate athletics, the NCAA, came to a close Friday. It ended not with a bang, but hardly a whimper either – unless UNC’s “Anybody but Carolina” rivals can be counted. Upon further review I might classify the latter’s response more as the collective howls of gutshot animals bemoaning the perceived injustice of it all.

Probably an overreaction when all is said and done.

Meanwhile, fans of the Tar Heels – about every third person in the state of North Carolina — squealed with delight, offered lusty cheers and hoisted thankful toasts as if another national basketball title had been added to the rafters of the Dean E. Smith Center.

Understandable but hardly appropriate all things considered.

Yet, that’s how intense this entire affair has become in the eyes of people who follow college athletics – especially basketball, the signature sport at UNC and on Tobacco Road for more than six decades. The university, in fact, was indeed and ironically scheduled to raise its 2017 men’s national championship banner sometime Friday after the long-awaited NCAA decision was announced. Some of the more cynical out there theorized the banner would be raised only so it could be lowered in disgrace with the rest of the more recent Tar Heels tarnished title hardware.

That’s how sure many were the Tar Heels would not only be smacked down by the NCAA, but smacked down with extreme prejudice. Some contended the confirmed accusation of academic fraud – there was nothing alleged about the matter at all – would be enough ammunition for the NCAA to invoke the seldom-used “death penalty,” shutting down one of the most historically successful basketball programs in all of college athletics for a season or two.

Not so. No banners will be removed or championships vacated or games forfeited. UNC will keep its scholarships, players and coaches. Its teams will be able to continue to compete for ACC and NCAA titles. Postseason, a rite for UNC more predictable than the arrival of freshmen, will land on time. There is a reprieve from the Death Row of college sports.

It was the best possible news for UNC athletics. Inconceivable news for UNC’s rivals at N.C. State (the most vocal), Duke, Wake Forest, Kentucky and a host of others who somehow feel personally wronged by UNC for most of their lifetimes. Such is the bizarre nature of fandom.

But, it’s still nothing to cheer about for UNC either.

Yes, its athletic programs got by the NCAA probe without even one major penalty. It did so even though there was preponderance of evidence that academic fraud did occur over a multi-year period and athletes were among the prominent beneficiaries.

Among is the operative word.

In the nifty world of legal semantics, the NCAA found it couldn’t penalize the University of North Carolina’s athletics teams because athletes didn’t receive special treatment unavailable to others. Because this particular case of academic fraud was incredibly widespread (more than 3,000 instances), the so-called paper courses offered in the African-American Studies program were available to all students, not just athletes who were occasionally students.

“While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’ offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes,” said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, the panel’s chief hearing officer, according to the Associated Press.

So there was a lot of wrongdoing at UNC in terms of academic fraud and it was so pervasive it couldn’t be traced directly to athletics. No evidence was found – and the NCAA looked hard — that coaches funneled their players into these fake classes in order to keep them eligible. Athletes just found out on their own and signed up for what they thought might be an easy A.

That has happened on college campuses for decades. When I was a student at a small private college in the 1970s there was one professor notorious for giving the same exams in his classes year after year after year. He taught two courses: Non-Western Religions and The Bible. His classes were like medicine for insomniacs. He read from a textbook or simply assigned reading in class then sat at his desk silently. And as advertised, his tests were unchanged from year to year. Copies from previous years were easily available on campus. People only had to memorize the answers and make an A. His classes were wildly popular. I took both myself. I got a head’s up on it from members of the football team.

Crip courses have been a staple of higher education for years and usually athletes can find them without much help from coaches.

The NCAA probe attempted to find if the academic fraud amounted to an improper benefit for athletes at UNC. Basketball analyst and Duke alum Jay Bilas understood the basic argument right away. Bilas, a lawyer, echoed the contention of University of North Carolina attorneys almost from the start. UNC believed the NCAA lacked jurisdiction and was overreaching into a matter of university academics that had only a glancing impact on athletics.

So while athletes remained eligible thanks to fraudulent courses, it was not considered an actionable benefit by NCAA regulations. Simple, yet ultimately expensive for both UNC and the NCAA in terms of cost and reputation.

So UNC got off on a technicality. Not dissimilar to someone in court having a case dismissed because the search warrant wasn’t signed correctly. Doesn’t make the university any less guilty of slipshod academics.

But make no mistake, this matter of academic fraud, which did threaten UNC’s accreditation, was a troublesome episode in UNC’s rich history of academic success and an ugly mark on the university’s reputation that will remain for some time.

That’s nothing to cheer about at all.

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