The number one team in college basketball this year has committed several academic violations.
Yet there is not a single thing the NCAA can do about it.
This past week, the Associated Press released its annual preseason poll where it ranks the top-25 college basketball programs for the 2015-2016 season. Perched at the top spot for a record 9th time is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels are expected to be a force to be reckoned with this season as they return their top four scorers in Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Justin Jackson. In fact, expectations are so high in Chapel Hill that the Tar Heels are expected to supplant their neighbors and reigning national champion Duke Blue Devils at the top of the ACC. The Blue Devils are again expected to be a top-five team but they lost their top four scorers from last year including highly touted freshmen Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor who were drafted in the first round of last year’s NBA draft, leaving this year’s team with a considerable drop-off in talent going into the season.
Despite the hype surrounding this year’s team, North Carolina’s basketball program has been on the national radar for quite some time now and it is not because of their on-court talent. This past June, the NCAA charged North Carolina with five violations regarding academic fraud relating to improper course availability for student-athletes mainly on the men’s and women’s basketball teams as well as the men’s football team. The NCAA found that from 1993 to 2011, roughly 1/2 of the 3,100 students that were enrolled in the university’s African and Afro-American Studies department were athletes who ended up taking “paper classes” that never actually met and that students only needed to submit a final paper to receive a grade. In addition, athletes received “special arrangements” that included counselors in the department being allowed to give them course offerings as well as assignments that were unavailable to non-athletes. Counselors would also recommend certain final grades for students based upon a quick and idle scan of their final papers, which would ensure that students not only got credit for a course they didn’t attend but also that they got a good grade that kept them academically eligible to continue with their college athletics.
All of these charges paint an ugly picture for the University of North Carolina, especially its men’s basketball program. Since 2003, the Tar Heels have been led by legendary coach Roy Williams, who has guided the team to national championships in 2005 and 2009. As head of the basketball program, Williams theoretically should have knowledge of what is going on with his players’ academics. However, Williams has denied knowledge of the scandal and his name is only mentioned once in the June report when he stated he wished his students would pursue academic areas outside the African and Afro-American studies department. In response to that report, Williams issued a statement which read:
“Everyone who loves Carolina is truly saddened by these allegations. We aspire to and work toward meeting higher standards than the actions that warranted this notice. Our university and numerous outside groups have looked at every aspect of our academic and athletic life. As a result, Carolina has implemented scores of new processes and checks and balances that have undoubtedly made us a better university. Hopefully, we will never again receive such a notice.”
However the damage had been done and it appeared that the NCAA would come down hard on the Tar Heels this season. There inevitably would be some kind of fallout for the nearly two decades of academic fraud including a likely loss of scholarships as well as a post-season ban. It didn’t matter how well the Tar Heels did in the regular season, they seemed destined to receive punishment by the NCAA for their infraction and this punishment would be to deny the team an opportunity to win its third national championship under coach Roy Williams.
Or so we thought.
This past August, North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham announced that the university had uncovered additional academic violations for the school’s women’s basketball and men’s soccer teams. This meant that the university would have 60 days to complete an additional review of the new violations before having to submit them to the NCAA. Once the NCAA received that information, they would go over it, and then determine whether the school’s original notice of allegations would need to be amended and resubmitted. If that were to be the case, the university would have an addition 90 days to respond. Long story short, in lieu of this newest violation, it is fairly certain that the North Carolina men’s basketball team will avoid any kind of penalty until after the 2015-2016 season. Which means the top-team in the country will have an opportunity to compete for the national championship despite having skirted NCAA rules for well over two decades.
The argument can always be made how unfair it is to punish players for the mistakes of others. Members of this year’s Tar Heel team were not part of the ongoing academic fraud that had encompassed the athletics program for nearly 20 years so they should not be banned for postseason play. However, on the flip side of that argument is where the NCAA draws the line. The NCAA attempts to portray itself as being genuinely concerned about the well being of student-athletes and they cannot simply turn a blind eye to a big-time university that has been running a sham class for nearly two decades. There have been calls for the university to receive the death penalty, in that the NCAA bans the men’s basketball program for an entire year in an effort to hopefully force the university to live up to the true expectations of what a college education can and should be about.
However, that simply won’t happen. Not at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Not at the school that brings in money, ratings, and advertising dollars from the heart of Tobacco Road. Not at the school whose crosstown rivalry games with Duke represent the two most-hyped regular season games that ESPN broadcasts all year. There’s simply too much money at stake for that to happen. The most likely outcome will be for UNC to lose a couple scholarships and receive a half-hearted slap on the wrist from the NCAA. Because UNC is college basketball and college basketball is UNC. The two co-exist in a way where they cannot exist without each other. The NCAA knows what a huge blow it would be to basketball at the school, in the region, and across the country if there was an entire basketball season without UNC. They simply cannot allow that to happen. Because of the NCAA’s unwavering commitment to advertising over academics, UNC men’s basketball will live to play another day.
You don’t need to attend class to know what the NCAA’s true priorities are.