North Carolina's widening academic scandal could be test case for the NCAA's newfound power

Well, that didn't take long.

After the NCAA circumvented its own crime-and-punishment process and blew up Penn State last month, we all wondered how long it would take for a follow-up test case to measure the willingness of the "new NCAA" to flex its precedent-setting muscles again. Was the Penn State case a sign of a new era in policing of athletic programs gone bad, or an isolated blip brought on by a school's unique abdication of morals and responsibilities?

Lo and behold, we have the festering scandal at North Carolina to give us a quick answer.

As the Raleigh News & Observer and North Carolina State message-board vigilantes continue to go where UNC's timorous administration wouldn't in plumbing the depths of the Tar Heels' academic mess – at least until Thursday, when the school appointed an independent review panel chaired by former governor Jim Martin – the situation demands a signal from NCAA president Mark Emmert.

Will he and the NCAA executive committee cowboy up again? Will they circumvent the rules manual and due process and go after Carolina on the basis of general principle, a la Penn State?

[Related: Sanctions at Ohio State, Penn State removes luster from Big Ten title race]

In announcing the crushing Penn State penalties – a four-year bowl ban, $60 million fine, deep scholarship cuts and more than 100 vacated victories – without benefit of an NCAA investigation or infractions hearing, Emmert issued the following justifications:

• "While there's been much speculation about whether this fits this specific bylaw or that specific bylaw, it certainly hits the fundamental values of what athletics are supposed to be doing in the context of higher education."

• "One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is the sports themselves can become too big to fail and too big to even challenge. The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by hero worship and winning at all costs."

Seems pretty clear we have an erosion of academic values at North Carolina. And it seems we have a situation that threatens the fundamental value of what athletics are supposed to be doing in the context of higher education.

The more we learn, the more it seems UNC has made a mockery of its ballyhooed academic mission for a long time in order to gain competitive advantage in football and men's basketball. With the introduction of what apparently is former two-sport star Julius Peppers' transcript into the public forum, it seems reasonable to assume that Carolina has been skating athletes through the African and Afro-American

Studies Department in order to maintain eligibility for more than a decade.

That cuts across multiple coaching tenures and multiple sports. And that means this isn't just a Butch Davis issue. Or a football issue. Or even a Julius Nyang'oro issue, the forcibly retired AFAM professor who has earned an infamous place in Carolina athletic lore for his involvement in so many shady classes.

It's an institutional issue, and that conjures one of those NCAA catch phrases that translate to big trouble: lack of institutional control.

But after hitting North Carolina last spring with a 2012 postseason ban, scholarship cuts and vacated victories, NCAA enforcement has shown no interest in returning to Chapel Hill and reopening its investigation. That's despite numerous reports during the summer indicating that academic shenanigans went on before and during that investigation.

UNC says the NCAA's reasoning for staying away has been that the academic problems are an institutional issue and not strict rules violations. Since work (a bare minimum amount) was allegedly turned in for the 54 "aberrant" AFAM classes, and since those classes were open to the general student body, the apparent fraud falls outside the NCAA purview. And as much as the NCAA is hands-on with transcripts and grades of athletes coming out of high school, it is notably (and nonsensically) hands-off with transcripts and grades of athletes in college.

That is all well and good, until you bring Penn State into the equation. There was nothing about the sins of Jerry Sandusky that fit neatly into the NCAA rules enforcement; Emmert and the executive committee simply decided that it had to go there because what happened was that bad and was connected to football.

[Related: Reggie Bush finally returns vacated Heisman Trophy]

I believed the NCAA overstepped its bounds with Penn State. But now that Emmert has ventured into Goodell Land and become judge, jury and executioner, will he stay there and penalize another program gone wrong without a cut-and-dried bylaw violation? Or was the smackdown of the Nittany Lions just a P.R. move to appease the outraged and show that the NCAA could hit a bloated target at point-blank range?

In human terms, it is abundantly clear that North Carolina is not Penn State – bogus classes and flimsy degrees do not belong in the same sentence with child rape. But in terms of what's objectionable to the NCAA – alleged systematic academic fraud over a decade or more – that strikes at the core of the entire college athletic franchise.

"It certainly appears that UNC has played the eligibility game with the same reckless abandon, and with the same skill, as the worst football factory you could imagine," UNC history professor Jay Smith said in an email to Yahoo! Sports. "It saddens all of us."

And now that a "Damn the Rulebook, Do What's Right" precedent has been established, is North Carolina's sad academic sandal a logical second act for the Emmert Posse?

If not, I'd say the NCAA has some explaining to do. So does Josephine Potuto.

Potuto is a former NCAA Committee on Infractions member and chairwoman, and currently is the NCAA faculty athletic representative at Nebraska. She told Yahoo! Sports last month that she's concerned about the precedent the Penn State ruling sets for the NCAA to jump outside its standard operating procedures. Now, Potuto said, the NCAA will have to explain itself every time it chooses not to get involved in an athletic issue on campus that is not directly related to NCAA bylaws.

So it's time for an explanation. Or another intervention. North Carolina provides an immediate and intriguing test case for the expanded powers of Mark Emmert and the NCAA.

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
Kobe Bryant's wife does 'not want to be married to someone who can't win championships'
Steve Henson: Melky Cabrera's ban comes five years after Barry Bonds's steroid-fueled Giants' reign ended
Shine: Nike's sexist 'Gold Digging' shirt under fire