UNC athletic director takes cautious approach regarding P.J. Hairston situation

After weeks of institutional silence, North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham issued a statement Wednesday regarding the increasingly tenuous status of star Tar Heels guard P.J. Hairston.

Cunningham acknowledged the gravity of the still-developing situation but reserved judgment until all the facts are known. However, Cunningham left open the possibility of discipline for Hairston from the school.

Hairston was arrested June 5 in Durham, N.C., on marijuana possession charges when a 2013 GMC Yukon he was driving was pulled over at a traffic checkpoint. Police found a half-ounce of marijuana, a 9mm handgun and nine rounds of ammunition outside the vehicle. Hairston and passengers Miykael Faulcon and Carlson Sanford all were charged with marijuana possession.

"The athletic department compliance staff and I are fully aware of recent media accounts related to our men's basketball team," Cunningham said. "We take these matters very seriously and are looking into these reports and the inferences they contain with all due diligence. It is my practice not to comment on the individuals involved or the details surrounding these reports until we have sufficient understanding of the facts involved. We are still gathering information, learning information from other sources, and we will not comment until we have a strong grasp of each individual situation."

That arrest sparked curiosity over who had rented the SUV that Hairston was driving. USA Today subsequently reported that the vehicle was rented by a convicted felon named Haydn "Fats" Thomas. The situation grew murkier this week when USA Today reported that Hairston was cited for speeding in another rental car in May that was registered to a woman, Catinia Farrington, who has the same address as Thomas.

On Tuesday, USA Today added to the intrigue by reporting that four rental vehicles linked to Thomas had received a total of nine parking citations on UNC's campus between Feb. 22 and May 28. The newspaper reported that Thomas and Farrington spent more than $15,000 on rental vehicles from the Raleigh-Durham International Airport Hertz location between mid-February and late June.

Sources with knowledge of the situation say the NCAA has not yet contacted North Carolina to begin investigating Hairston's ties to the rental cars or Thomas, but they expect it to happen in the near future. UNC has looked into possible ties between Thomas and an agent who may be funneling impermissible benefits to Hairston, but sources say none has been discovered yet.

UNC currently is on probation for wide-ranging major violations in football, including impermissible benefits from agents to players. The football program was given a postseason ban and other serious sanctions, and the scandal led to the firing of football coach Butch Davis, the retirement of athletic director Dick Baddour and ultimately played a role in the resignation of chancellor Holden Thorp.

In addition, the school has been rocked by an academic scandal that centered around bogus classes in the African-American Studies Department. A significant number of athletes – including many football and men's basketball players – were enrolled in the classes. However, the NCAA has said the no-show classes were a university-wide issue and not specific to athletics, because regular students also took the bogus classes.

With that as context, the timing of a potential legal and NCAA issue involving the leading scorer on the 2012-13 Tar Heels basketball team is hardly ideal.

After the original traffic stop June 5, the NCAA did begin an inquiry into the relationship between Hairston and agent Rodney Blackstock, both of whom are from Greensboro, N.C. Blackstock allegedly funneled thousands of dollars to McLemore's AAU coach from agents and financial advisers, according to a spring story in USA Today.

After reports surfaced about the NCAA's inquiry into the relationship between Blackstock and Hairston, there was speculation that Blackstock may have rented the Yukon, but that turned out to be incorrect. Instead, the ties to Thomas may be even worse.

WRAL, a television station in Raleigh, N.C., reported that Thomas has been convicted of at least nine offenses – four of them felonies – in Durham and Wake counties since 2006. Offenses include drug paraphernalia possession, obtaining property by false pretense, carrying of a concealed weapon, possession of stolen goods and printing and spending false money.

Thomas did not serve jail time for any of his nine convictions, according to WRAL.

The TV station also reported that Thomas was on the witness list for the prosecution in the Duke lacrosse rape case in 2006. At the time, Thomas worked security for the Platinum Night Club in Hillsborough, the club in which the alleged rape victim worked.

When Thomas' identity was made public as the renter of the Yukon that Hairston was driving, he initially denied knowing Hairston or having any connection to UNC athletes. After a string of social-media connections between Thomas and Tar Heels players was established, he backtracked on that denial but insisted his interaction with them was because of his work as a party promoter.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams refused comment Tuesday when stopped on the street by a local television station. Williams will have to repeat that comment often in the days to come, as he heads out on the July recruiting circuit this week.