For years, people have been asking when NCAA justice would be delivered unto North Carolina for its 18 years of academic misconduct that benefited more than 1,000 athletes.
Those questions intensified as the Tar Heels men's basketball program – whose players were proportionally one of the most enthusiastic participants in the African and Afro-American Studies bogus classes scandal – advanced to this year's NCAA tournament championship game. The sense among many fan bases was that the Tar Heels were getting away scot-free, and those fan bases wanted to know when the hammer would fall.
Today, we are closer to an answer.
And that answer looks even more like never.
The school received an amended NCAA Notice of Allegations Monday, nearly 11 months after the initial notice arrived. There still are five Level I allegations – the most serious violations in the NCAA penalty structure – but some things have changed.
The charge of "impermissible benefits" to athletes who were enrolled in the so-called "paper classes" is gone. Taking that off the table certainly has the appearance of a softened stance by NCAA Enforcement.
I asked North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham on a conference call Monday what his reaction was to the removal of the impressible benefits charge.
"I think that is a question for the NCAA," he said. "I've got to deal with the five we have."
Also of note: The most complete of North Carolina's myriad internal investigations (the Wainstein Report) dates the fake classes back to 1993. But the two allegations within the NOA which could pertain to football and basketball misdeeds – lack of institutional control and a failure to monitor – date from the fall of 2005. That happens to be several months after the Heels won the '05 national title, with multiple players who were AFAM majors. So there appears to be little if any leverage for the NCAA to take down that championship banner.
So what North Carolina basically has are a couple of broad institutional charges that target no specific sport, and do not mention basketball coach Roy Williams anywhere in the new report. And a whole lot of ammo aimed at women's basketball.
Now more than ever, it looks like that program is going to pay the piper. While it's possible that nobody else does.
How will that go over outside of North Carolina state lines? Not terribly well.
The release of this NOA looks like the latest step in a savvy legal maneuver by the school to navigate through this mess with minimal risk to its flagship program.
Recall that this amended Notice of Allegations came about because the school asked in August for an extension in filing its response to the original, citing new potential rules violations in women's basketball and men's soccer. North Carolina asked for and received an extra 60 days to respond, a key chunk of time that effectively pushed the timeline for the outcome of the case past the end of the 2015-16 basketball season.
Why was that important? Because North Carolina was a title contender, in August and all the way to the very last shot of the season. Pushing a hearing and potential penalties past the end of the season ensured that the Heels would be able to play unimpeded.
So, whatever became of those additional violations? The women's basketball ones were folded into the new NOA, but there was no mention of men's soccer in there. Cunningham was asked about that Monday.
The men's soccer violations "have been fully adjudicated," he said, adding that some recruiting restrictions were imposed. He said there were "a couple other penalties" but did not name them, and said the violations were Level III – which is basically the NCAA equivalent of jaywalking.
Two months for that. Nice stall ball.
Why it took the NCAA another six months to respond with a new Notice of Allegations is another matter entirely, and no answers were forthcoming Monday. But one look at the NOA says that the institution rethought things more considerably than was expected.
And the result could be an even softer list of allegations than the last one, which did nothing to satiate the national bloodlust.
So if you're waiting for the hammer to drop on North Carolina, keep waiting. And when it does drop, it could well be wrapped in velvet to cushion the blow.