Why the UNC scandal is NCAA President Mark Emmert’s chance at redemption

Why the UNC scandal is NCAA President Mark Emmert’s chance at redemption

NCAA President Mark Emmert has kept a low profile of late, or at least as low of a profile as his position allows. It’s likely for the best.

Next week marks the start of his fifth year on the job, a tenure that began with big ideas and bold talk but has descended into controversies, calls for his firing/resignation and general angst as the public and legal tide has turned against the NCAA model of amateurism.

Kenneth Wainstein of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP holds up a report detailing accounts of academic fraud at UNC. (Getty)
Kenneth Wainstein of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP holds up a report detailing accounts of academic fraud at UNC. (Getty)

They’ve overwhelmed the moderate (yet notable) reforms Emmert has worked to install. Yes, most came under extreme threat, legal or otherwise, but still.

These days, many see the NCAA on the verge of collapse, a once great bully on the last days of relevance. Emmert is merely the captain of the Titanic.

It doesn’t need to be this way. It probably shouldn’t be this way.

There is ample and overdue room for wholesale change, but the need for a central governing body on college athletics remains. And so too does a place that upholds basic standards of reasonable behavior, because left to their own devices, college sports can reach some awful, horrible depths.

The University of North Carolina on Wednesday presented Emmert a golden opportunity to reassert a modicum of control, authority and the NCAA’s moral core when it released a detailed investigation by Kenneth Wainstein that essentially concluded it’s been cheating its Tar Heels off for the better part of two decades.

It is the unexpected chance for the rebirth of Mark Emmert and, perhaps, of the organization he runs.

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North Carolina’s sins here go far beyond the scope of a traditional NCAA case. This isn’t about fancy cars in the player’s parking lot or an agent offering a budding pro some Champagne Room money or some old alum doling out a hundred dollar handshake to a potential recruit.

Those are acts in which a rich person gives a poor(er) person money, an act that in virtually any other segment of society is met with affirmation.

The NCAA bans those in the spirit of a level playing field, but it’s also/mostly about controlling all revenue. It rings hollow as additional billions roll into the overall enterprise, but the player is still getting the same deal from the 1920s: tuition, room and board.

UNC cuts to the core of college athletics and the base point for the NCAA’s own longstanding public relations campaign (student-athletes going pro in something other than sports).

It is, you could say, the one thing that is almost universally agreed upon.

Educate the players. Or at least try.

For too many athletes, the chance at a college education is a currency they struggle to cash. They arrive unprepared, disinterested or just incapable, like plucking a kid from elementary school ballet class, enrolling them in Juilliard and expecting them to succeed like the others.

That doesn’t mean a school that’s made the devil’s deal of admitting them should give up on them, not attempt to educate on some levels, not try to push them to be better.

Carolina shouldn't brazenly, blatantly and systematically run an assembly line of eligibility. There have been too many success stories to not make an attempt.

For 18 years and over 1,000 student-athletes, including huge swaths of football and basketball players, UNC ran classes that were designed to require little to no academic work. It included academic advisers essentially telling the instructor the grade necessary to maintain eligibility. This was true even in cases when everyone suspected/knew the student in question submitted false or recycled papers for the minimal work required.

So they knew kids were cheating … in a fake class, no less … and they just calculated the needed grade to keep playing and then gave it to them.

Lux libertas, indeed.

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The extent of this thing is so preposterous that it rocked even within the glazed-over eyes of a post-Nevin Shapiro world of college athletics.

After all, at one point, there was even a PowerPoint presentation about it.

Sadly, it wasn't about academics for UNC athletes. (AP)
Sadly, it wasn't about academics for UNC athletes. (AP)

It occurred in November 2009 and was led by Beth Bridger of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, and when they say “support” at UNC, boy, do they mean support.

The athletic department was facing a crisis because Deborah Crowder, the manager of the African and Afro-American Studies Department, was retiring and with it was the guarantee of essentially no-work classes.

(An aside: For all she did through the years for UNC athletics, Crowder needs to have her jersey hanging from the Smith Center rafters. Her number can be “4.0?”)

The Academic Support people wanted to “ring the alarm bell” for how dire this Crowder retirement could be, so Bridger stood in front of a room full of football coaches, including head man Butch Davis, and delivered the PowerPoint.

It included a screen that read:

We put them in classes that met degree requirements in which:

They didn’t go to class

They didn’t take notes, have to stay awake

They didn’t have to meet with professors

They didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material

It concluded:


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In the long, illustrious annals of NCAA infractions hysterics, this is comic gold. So over the top it’s hard to believe.

The presentation noted that on average, players were receiving a 3.61 in the no-show classes and a 1.91 in “real” classes, so without Crowder, GPAs would plummet (and, predictably, did). The PowerPoint was later forwarded to others in the athletic department, including a senior associate AD.

These aren’t the actions of a rogue employee or a tutor overstepping the line between helping and doing. This isn’t one or two people. These aren’t coaches and administrators conveniently not asking or wondering why an at-risk kid suddenly got straight A's, all so they could play even dumber than usual (well, daggum it, Roy).

This isn’t even anyone trying to keep a secret.

This was flat-out, full-on cheating. It’s not just breaking UNC and NCAA rules, but the basic tenets of college sports. This was an institutionalized way for students to maintain eligibility and win bowl games and Final Fours while not teaching them a damn thing.

And it went on for 18 years.

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There’s more, of course, 131 pages of more. The big picture however is clear and comes without much of a defense.

Emmert and the NCCA need to stand for something. (AP)
Emmert and the NCCA need to stand for something. (AP)

Other schools do it? Blame the dumb kids? Regular students eventually heard about the scam and took the classes, too? The TV announcers always said we did it “the right way”? Dean Smith is a cool dude? M.J. went there? We have sweet blue uniforms?


Emmert has been beaten to a pulp during his time in Indianapolis and most of it was self-inflicted.

Here’s his chance to punch back. This isn’t inserting himself into a scandal such as Penn State that was best left to courts of law. This isn’t repeating the tired argument over the value of amateurism.

If Emmert, at 61, still has the old fire he started the job with, if he still has the belief that NCAA rules count for something, if he still believes in college sports and the good it can produce, it he still holds the confidence to walk into a fight and throw haymakers, then this is the weakling waiting to be made an example.

Multi-sport postseason bans? Fines? Scholarship reductions? Death penalty? It all should be on the table.

Here’s the chance for the enforcement process to be strong, authoritative and actually applauded.

A school gave up on educating its students in pursuit of athletic glory.

They didn’t … have to stay awake.

Because if the NCAA doesn’t stand up to that, then why would it and its president stand at all anymore?