North Carolina ruling proves NCAA is useless

Let history record this as the week the National Collegiate Athletic Association completed its descent from flawed to failed.

The governing body of college sports is useless when it comes to policing itself. Mall cops think the NCAA is soft on crime.

That nice office space it occupies in Indianapolis? Vacate it, since the powers-that-be couldn’t find a way to vacate anything belonging to North Carolina after a school-acknowledged 18 years of brazen academic fraud, a good portion of which tainted the Tar Heels’ 2005 and ’09 basketball national championships.

That was the news Friday – in arguably its most anticipated ruling ever, the NCAA Committee on Infractions admitted that it is powerless to apply any real penalties to blueblood Carolina after more than 1,000 athletes got bogus grades for sham classes. And it followed the news Wednesday that the NCAA’s response to a massive corruption scandal in college basketball was to form a committee, while federal investigators do the spadework exposing a decades-old system of third parties buying players.

It’s a dirty sport. And the NCAA doesn’t even own a decent broom.

The North Carolina ruling was bound to infuriate people, no matter what the NCAA decided. It was a tricky, contentious case that did not neatly fit the association’s bulky rules manual. The intrigue was whether the COI could find a way around its own bylaw limitations to make a penalty stick, or let the Heels skate on a technicality.

They skated. The ruling was immediately hated. And the NCAA’s impotence can no longer be debated.

“It’s a bad case,” said Tom Yeager, former commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association and a former chair of the COI. “The optics of the academic thing is very bad right on the heels of all this payment [scandal in basketball], which is really bad. Again, to the general public, it’s going to be a one-two punch on the credibility of college athletics. It’s going to be a challenge to help try and restore that credibility, if it’s restorable.”

It may not be. The national outcry accompanying this ruling already is loud and angry – and not just from Joe Fan. A lot of coaches and administrators were watching this case intently. You can almost hear their faith in college athletics leaking.

And the NCAA is the target for a lot of the outrage, because it cannot create a level playing field.

If you can’t hit a school for the infraction that strikes most deeply at the mission of higher education, what good are you? Especially when that infraction was committed over a period of 18 years, by so many athletes. Including athletes who played on the school’s most celebrated teams (10 Tar Heels from the ’05 title team were African and Afro-American Studies majors).

“I think you can make the case that it’s a low ebb for the organization,” said one high-ranking college athletics official. “What’s it in business to do? I think it’s in a sense, by process of elimination, an organization that’s reduced itself to only being able to conduct championships.”

All that said, this is not a Mark Emmert problem, per se. It’s a systemic problem.

The profundity of this debacle falls less on the people directly involved in adjudicating this case than on the structure of the association itself. The rules themselves are the problem, not the application of them. The COI, led by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, was handed a no-win task, and failed accordingly. (There was plenty of UNC caterwauling about having the commissioner of a rival league chairing this case. That was a lot of baseless paranoia.)

NCAA bylaws basically say that if you’ve got a sham degree program available to the general student population at your school, and it just so happens that a high percentage of athletes are in that program, that’s your issue and not ours. As it clearly signaled it would last spring, North Carolina exploited that loophole. And as Sankey noted on the NCAA conference call to discuss the ruling Friday, UNC assailed the accuracy of the Cadwallader report its own school signed off on, which “troubled” the COI but proved persuasive.

Those strategies paid off.

“The panel is in no way supporting what happened,” Sankey said. “What happened is troubling. But the panel applied the membership’s bylaws to the facts.”

And the bylaws say that the NCAA isn’t in the business of legislating curriculum.

“The NCAA is a red herring in a lot of ways,” Yeager said. “The NCAA is not going to go in and say, ‘At Syracuse this qualifies but at Springfield College it doesn’t.’ You’re not getting into something where you’re wading in and saying, ‘The quality of your coursework sucks.’”

Clearly, in this area, the quality of the coursework sucked at academically prestigious North Carolina. That led to some major fallout at the school – people within athletic and academic administrations lost their jobs. The school was put on academic probation.

But the sacred cow of men’s basketball? It suffered a grand total of zero negative consequences. Nobody lost a job. No probation. No vacated wins. No postseason bans. Zippo.

Roy Williams did a lot of moaning about the difficulty recruiting while this cloud hovered – then went to consecutive national title games in 2016 and ’17, winning the latter. The struggle was not real.

Tonight, North Carolina will raise the banner for that 2017 title. As I wrote three years ago, when the full extent of the academic fraud became known, the school should have the fortitude and rectitude to take down the ’05 and ’09 banners on its own. Wear your shame.

“Going back, it’s more the university has to look at itself,” Yeager said.

North Carolina can look itself in the eye, smirk, and say it beat the system. A program that for more than 50 years has proclaimed itself a special place, an ivory tower of sorts, better than the rest of its grimy basketball brethren, is in fact no better.

But the failing NCAA was incapable of making the Tar Heels pay for their academic sins. What a disastrous week for the governing body of college sports.

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