Good luck with this one, NCAA Committee on Infractions.
The judge and jury of college sports has been handed an intriguingly broad-but-vague set of allegations against the University North Carolina by the NCAA enforcement staff. Those allegations – a lack of institutional control, widespread and long-standing impermissible academic benefits, and unethical conduct by former faculty members – were made public by the school Thursday. North Carolina has until Aug. 20 to file a formal response, with athletic director Bubba Cunningham saying Thursday that "some allegations we will probably agree with and others we will not."
Then the Committee on Infractions will be charged with delivering NCAA justice, with a ruling expected sometime in 2016 (and the timing of that could be crucial).
It will be a tricky task.
Did the NCAA enforcement staff give the COI a big enough hammer to smash the sacred cow, UNC men's basketball? Or will Roy Williams' program continue to avoid substantial damage from an academic scandal that has scorched a path through the school?
That's unclear today, and clarity isn't likely to arrive anytime soon.
Among the masses of Carolina critics, there is a belief that men's basketball has escaped a four-year gauntlet undeservedly unscathed. Faculty members, administrators, coaches and other school staffers have lost their jobs – but not Teflon Tar Heel Roy Williams or his assistants.
First, the NCAA declined to investigate the allegation that some 3,100 students were enrolled in so-called sham classes over an 18-year period and that student-athletes accounted for nearly half the course enrollments. The NCAA cited the fact that regular students were among beneficiaries of the academic shenanigans in the African Studies program – thus making it a school issue and not an instance of preferential treatment for athletes only. Then, former hoops star Rashad McCants, who played at UNC from 2002-05, aired some dirty transcript laundry to ESPN – and nothing substantive came of it.
And when the Wainstein Report – the last, most thorough and most damning of a series of UNC-commissioned internal investigations – came out last year, it found rampant academic fraud that benefited football and men's basketball. But it didn't directly hold the basketball staff accountable for any wrongdoing. While the school has instituted a panoply of reforms, it hasn't done much to shake up things in the Dean Smith Center.
Since the Wainstein Report came out, I've believed that Carolina should be shamed into pro-action; it should unilaterally take down either or both of its 2005 and '09 men's national championship banners if players involved in academic fraud were part of those teams. For a school that is awfully proud of its high-minded Carolina Way, that would be walking the walk.
To date, UNC has shown no inclination to walk that walk.
So everyone who has been screaming for a pound of powder-blue flesh has kept right on screaming, while waiting to see whether the NCAA would be the entity to deliver it. Now it's not clear whether that will happen.
None of the five Level I (i.e., major) allegations released Thursday specifically mentions anyone associated with the men's basketball program. Yet the voluminous evidence addendum filed by the NCAA lists scores of emails linking men's basketball to so-called "paper classes" – basically sham academic courses designed to get easy grades for athletes and other students. Several emails cited are to and from former basketball academic point person Wayne Walden, who came to UNC with Williams from Kansas, an unusual relocation for an academic guy.
But again: the charge is lack of institutional control, broadly aimed at athletics. If that charge is upheld by the COI – not a sure thing at this point – will it take that broad charge and narrowcast it to certain programs most involved in the scandal? Namely, men's and women's basketball, and football? Or will it be compelled to apply more general penalties to the athletic department as a whole?
We don't know.
Like Syracuse last March, the alleged violations are dated enough that any sanctions applied to UNC would be under the NCAA's old penalty structure – which could be beneficial to Williams, as it was to Orange coach Jim Boeheim. The new penalty structure provides more opportunity for substantial sanctions against a head coach.
But in theory, at least, one of the biggest weapons in the NCAA arsenal could still be in play here – a postseason ban. And if that were levied against the basketball program in the upcoming season, it could be one of the most significant penalties ever doled out.
North Carolina could start the 2015-16 season ranked No. 1 (which is proof the hoops program hasn't suffered much during this four-year scandal churn). Would the NCAA have the guts to take out a title-contending team late in the season? Based on violations that occurred years earlier?
That's where the timing of this investigation can come into play. Cunningham said Thursday UNC will meet its Aug. 20 deadline to respond to the allegations, and noted that any self-imposed sanctions could be included in that response. From there, the NCAA has 60 days to prepare a response to that and to compile all the agreed-upon facts, which takes us to Oct. 20.
Cunningham said a Committee On Infractions hearing could take place in December – and from there the COI would generally be expected to rule within 90 days. Which would run up very close to the 2016 postseason tournaments.
Any delay in the timetable would probably make it too late for the committee to rule before the '16 NCAA tournament. But say Carolina is allowed to play, wins the national title, and then in April the COI applies a 2017 postseason ban.
How would that go over?
This is a case fraught with peril for the committee. Deciding proper penalties and proper timing – with the whole world watching – will be very difficult.