Proof That NCAA Doesn’t Really Want to Punish UNC Basketball for Fake Classes

North Carolina’s top athletics officials and marquee sport largely get a pass in the worst academic-fraud episode in recent memory

Photographer: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The NCAA wants to let UNC off easy. The organization’s academic-fraud findings against the University of North Carolina at first glance seem tough, but the accusations are actually crafted to protect a storied men’s basketball program.

Understanding the NCAA charges matters a lot. How the college sports world reacts to the findings—and UNC’s defensive response—will help determine the punishment the NCAA eventually imposes. The punishment, in turn, will shape the lessons drawn from the fiasco. If the outcry is loud and angry, there’s a chance the powers that be at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, who are nothing if not image-conscious, will rethink their instinct to protect one of the most valuable franchises in the $16 billion-a-year college sports industry.

The charges sound severe ...

The NCAA found that to keep Tar Heels athletes eligible, UNC officials turned in assignments on players’ behalf, suggested inflated grades, and operated a system of fake lecture courses requiring little to no actual academic work. The NCAA enumerated this corruption in five “Level 1” violations—the most egregious sort—including a comprehensive “lack of institutional control” over the sports program. The NCAA sent the charges to UNC last month, and the school released them on Thursday as part of a protracted back-and-forth that will continue for the balance of 2015 and could stretch into next year before the NCAA determines how to punish UNC.

... but give a pass to those in charge of men’s basketball

This entire scandal has its roots in UNC’s desperation to field championship men’s basketball teams. The school’s premier sports franchise has brought home national trophies, most recently in 2009 and 2005. Previous investigations, including one sponsored by UNC and released last fall, showed that the school ran a “shadow curriculum” in its former African and Afro-American Studies department. The black-studies department offered hundreds of fake classes disproportionately populated with athletes—and men’s basketball and football players in particular.

Yet longtime men’s basketball coach Roy Williams has only a walk-on role in the NCAA’s findings, suggesting he’s a mere bystander. Instead, the NCAA comes down hard on marginal campus figures, including a former women’s basketball academic adviser and a former black-studies chairman. Whistle-blowers Mary Willingham, a former UNC athlete tutor, and Jay Smith, a tenured history professor, had this to say in a trenchant blog post:

We find it especially revealing, and discouraging, that Jan Boxill [the women’s basketball adviser] was singled out for one of the five named allegations. Boxill worked in a system where all who had regular contact with athletes were complicit in a charade. These people included admissions officials, athletic directors, academic counselors, coaches, and compliance staff for football, men’s basketball, and many other sports.

The NCAA bizarrely sees academic fraud as a ‘benefit’

The college sports regulator has long been obsessed with policing athletes’ freebies—steak dinners, automobiles, the occasional cash-stuffed envelope—while overlooking egregious academic fraud. In its UNC allegations, the NCAA describes placement in fake paper classes and other forms of cheating as “impermissible benefits to student-athletes that were not generally available to the student body.”

Think about that for a moment: The NCAA is describing access to phony courses as a “benefit.” By intellectually crippling their star athletes, UNC did these young men (and women) a favor? In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Academic fraud was a hidden penalty—granted, one that many athletes voluntarily subjected themselves to—not some kind of prize.

UNC’s reaction? Fight! Fight! Fight!

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said in a written statement: “We will respond to the notice using facts and evidence to present a full picture of our case. Although we may identify some instances in the NCAA’s notice where we agree and others where we do not, we are committed to continue pursuing a fair and just outcome for Carolina.”

Note that Folt refers to UNC’s arguing its “case” and seeking a “just outcome” for the institution, as if this were an adversarial court proceeding. For years now, UNC has compromised its heritage as one of the best public universities in the country by trying to minimize the extent of the intellectual rot within its flagship campus. This matters not because UNC is unique, but because its problems are all too typical. Rather than admit there’s something fundamentally wrong with the college sports business, UNC’s top administrators have whitewashed past sins. The NCAA seems eager to help, perhaps because the Tar Heels play a vital role in the March Madness basketball tournament that’s one of the most celebrated elements of a multibillion-dollar industry.

For more, read this QuickTake: Challenging the NCAA

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