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Experts weigh in on potential sanctions for UNC from NCAA investigation

In June, the NCAA announced it would reopen its investigation into academic fraud at UNC. With no information about the status of the investigation, many wonder just when the end might come.

“I don’t anticipate it being that soon,” said Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham. “Just because one investigation is completed, you don’t want to rush the process of another investigation.”

The NCAA — which declined to comment — previously closed its investigation into UNC in 2012, but reopened it because additional people agreed to cooperate.

While the previous investigation focused exclusively on the football program, UNC athletics blogger Doc Kennedy said the idea of losing the men’s basketball team’s 2005 championship has fans in a state of trepidation.

“A lot of it comes from the fact that there’s still so much unknown,” said Kennedy, who writes for Tar Heel Blog. “The 2005 banner has become the Holy Grail for people who want to attach some meaning and value to this whole scandal.”

Ten of the 15 players on the 2005 championship team majored in African and Afro-American Studies — the department at the center of the scandal. Mary Willingham, former athletic learning specialist, tweeted in April that five starting players plus a reserve took a combined 69 fake courses in the department.

Despite community anxieties, Cunningham believes the continued concern only perpetuates the story.

“At some point we’ve got to move forward,” he said. “And I think we’re to that point.”

But Kennedy, a 1991 UNC graduate, doesn’t think it’s that simple.

“It’s very easy to say move on,” he said. “But until there is some clearer resolution, people are going to have concern.”

More than 3,100 students were enrolled in fake courses in the African and Afro-American studies department over the course of 18 years, according to the Wainstein report. The courses were sometimes used to inflate athletes’ grades to maintain their eligibility.

UNC’s scandal is seen as the ultimate test for the NCAA, which has long faced criticism. In 2013, the NCAA redefined its sanctioning process, moving to a four-tiered structure ranging from “severe breach of conduct” to “incidental issues.”

Academic fraud is characterized as a Level 1 offense.

“Where you’re changing grades, transcripts, when you have these paper classes as outlined in the Wainstein report,” said Connee Zotos, a former athletic director who is a professor at New York University. “That’s absolutely fraud.”

Though the specifics of the scandal are unprecedented, UNC is not the only school facing punishments for academic fraud. Last week, the NCAA’s head of enforcement said there are currently 20 schools under investigation for academic misconduct.

Despite the prevalence of academic fraud, Zotos said she has never seen impropriety like that at UNC.

“To read the kids say they took so many of them that they got a minor, and they didn’t even realize they got a minor,” Zotos said. “This is tip of the iceberg stuff.”

A Wainstein skeptic

When the NCAA initially concluded its investigation in 2012, the football team was handed a three year probation, scholarship reductions and a postseason ban. But in February 2014 — amid speculation that parts of the scandal were yet to be uncovered — the school commissioned Wainstein to investigate.

Despite the expected finality of the report, Cunningham doesn’t consider the findings to be a definitive source.

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“If you were interviewed in the report, there’s probably portions of it that you say, ‘Yeah, that’s accurate.’ There’s probably other characterizations where you say, ‘Ehhh, that’s not completely what I said,’” he said. “What you have is one person’s view of 126 interviews telling you the narrative of what they believe happened.”

Cunningham said the current investigation — which is jointly conducted by the NCAA and UNC — will aim to uncover the truth through a much more cooperative effort.

While NCAA investigators will research the specifics of the case, sanctions are determined by volunteer committees — including university presidents, athletic directors, coaches and faculty members.

“That’s the biggest misperception of people,” Zotos said, regarding the NCAA sanctioning process. “They think there’s this little empire making these willy-nilly decisions. They don’t realize that the decisions are coming from their peers.”

Though the NCAA did simplify its classification process of rules violations, it didn’t provide any further framework for how it sanctions.

“There’s going to be a substantial portion of the UNC community and of UNC’s rivals that are going to be unhappy with whatever happens,” Kennedy said. “I can’t even begin to think what the NCAA is going to do.”

‘A cop-out for any coach’

Past investigations determined UNC’s academic scandal was simply that – an academic scandal. But Wainstein’s report found a link between athletics and academics, as athletes were often steered to fake classes by athletic counselors.

“That’s kind of an easy out for the coaching staff and the athletic department to go, ‘It wasn’t really for us,’” said Dan Bruton, president of SportRX and a sports marketing professor in San Diego. “Even if it was started and it wasn’t for them, they certainly jumped on it and used it to their advantage.”

If coaches did relegate oversight duties to their assistants, they remain subject to NCAA bylaws regarding “presumption of responsibility,” making them liable for all conduct violations of assistant coaches.

And if found guilty – even if not directly responsible – coaches could face up to a year suspension.

“It’s a cop-out for any coach to say, ‘I don’t really know what’s going on,’” said Bruton, a former college basketball coach. “You’re running the program. It’s your program, those are your student athletes. You need to know what’s going on.”

Zotos said coaches would have to show willful ignorance to not know what went on.

“It takes a little too much collusion and people knowing for that to go on as long as it did,” she said. “This is epic proportion academic fraud ... And they need to send a message.”

NCAA at a crossroads

After the NCAA’s initial investigation, UNC placed itself on a two-year probation, reduced nine scholarship allotments and vacated the wins from its 2008 and 2009 football seasons. It also fired coach Butch Davis and paid the NCAA a $50,000 fine.

“When the crime is enormous, we’re glad that schools step up and take some important actions,” said Zotos, who served two terms on the NCAA Division III Management Council. “But it’s really a sliding scale.”

Because of the NCAA’s precarious position currently, Bruton sees the sanctions as a measure of the NCAA’s power.

“They’re really at a crossroads in their future and their ability and what they can and can’t do, right here right now,” he said. “I think logic would tell you they’ll try to make an example out of the situation.”

If UNC’s championship season is vacated, Kennedy said it would be hypocritical for the NCAA to leave other sports unpunished.

“(The belief that) if somehow that banner comes down, it justifies everything else — I think that’s unfair,” Kennedy said. “If you are consistent and intellectually honest, then you have to look across the board.”

UNC beat writer Brian Barbour said he doesn’t see widespread penalties as a possibility.

“If the NCAA is gonna come in and say those classes were not appropriate for maintaining eligibility, are we gonna go back for 18 years and render every athlete that took one class ineligible?” he said. “The NCAA doesn’t want to take a championship banner down.”

Regardless of what sanctions are levied, Barbour will always remember the experience of the Tar Heels cutting down the nets in 2005.

“They can take the banner down, but they can’t take the feeling that I had watching them win that,” he said. “It’s not gonna take away what that championship meant to me.”

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