Nashville, Tenn. — Six years and three notices of allegations since the first reports of a possible athletic-academic scandal at UNC, the NCAA held a Nashville-based hearing on Wednesday and Thursday — one with coaches and university representatives on the roster.
The hearing follows a July 17 letter to Carol Folt from the NCAA director of enforcement, in which the NCAA challenged UNC’s claim that so-called easy courses in the African-American Studies Department were available to all students, not just athletes.
“The argument is incorrect and mischaracterizes the clear statements of numerous individuals with personal knowledge of the special arrangements,” the July response from the NCAA said.
The NCAA’s case calls into question a period of time that included two men’s basketball national championships — and predated this year’s UNC senior class.
If the NCAA were to determine athletes were given the “impermissible benefit” of being in easy courses, then the organization’s July letter implies UNC will be accordingly penalized for violating NCAA policy.
In its most recent Notice of Allegations, the NCAA presented a total of five allegations against the University, and it added men’s basketball and football to the list of programs in question — after those programs had been removed from an earlier notices.
The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions took part in the Nashville hearings. Their task was to decide if and to what extent the University violated existing NCAA policy — and if so, what the according punishment would be.
The University’s chief defense going into the hearing was that the rigor of the courses, which already led to sanctions from the University’s academic accrediting agency, does not fall under the purview of the NCAA.
“No special arrangements were made for student-athletes in violation of NCAA extra-benefit legislation. Student-athletes made up 29.4 percent of the enrollments in the courses,” the University’s third response to the NCAA’s notice of allegations said.
This response drew criticism from Jay Smith, a UNC history professor who taught a course on the NCAA and college athletics that was canceled at the end of the fall 2016 semester.
“They have signaled for all to see that, at UNC, courses with no instruction, no professorial presence, no expert evaluation of student learning and very little work are really pretty OK,” Smith said in an email.
Sitting in a Nashville Hallway
Airport-style security ropes separated the media from the UNC athletics delegation as they walked through the paneled glass doors of a conference room at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center on Wednesday morning.
The NCAA requested for representatives of UNC athletics, like women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell and football coach Larry Fedora, to attend the Committee on Infractions hearing.
Bringing up the rear of the group present in Nashville was men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, who flashed his yellow entry wristband upon entering the meeting room.
The coaches were joined by UNC officials and legal counsel, including Chancellor Carol Folt and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham. The coaches, administrators and additional University members present were officially informed of the hearing in the NCAA’s July notice to the University.
Due to NCAA rules, neither party was allowed to comment on specifics of the hearing — including its locations and the specific composition of those present.
Despite the circumstances of the hearing, cameras and microphones still lined the hallways surrounding the hearing room, as reporters hoped to glean any bit of information from participants as they shuffled in and out throughout the day.
According to Stacey Osburn, director of Public and Media Relations for the NCAA, the hearing locations are decided in advance — before the organization even knows who might be participating in the potential hearing.
No one besides the NCAA and pre-selected UNC officials were permitted in the hearing room, and both the NCAA and the University are prohibited from discussing the specifics of UNC’s hearing while investigations are pending, according to Article 19 of the NCAA rulebook.
“No one involved, from the enforcement staff to the committee on infractions to the coaches or anyone from the involved school, can speak about the contents of the case until it is concluded to help protect the integrity of that process,” Osburn said.
A Tennessee educator attending a neighboring conference in the convention center posed a question that highlighted just how seriously both sides regarded the maintenance of privacy throughout the case.
The educator asked about the possibility of getting Roy Williams autograph, but she said she was not allowed to greet the coach. Such limitations added another layer of secrecy to a process that has often been criticized for its lack of transparency.
The NCAA clarified at the beginning of proceedings Wednesday morning that it would not make a statement on the hearings to reporters in Nashville, even after the hearings adjourned on Thursday.
Jon Duncan, vice president of enforcement at the NCAA, said in an interview at the organization’s headquarters in Indianapolis that the investigation and hearing procedures are consistently reviewed in processes driven by both member institutions and the organization. The University chose not to issue a statement immediately after the hearing, as well.
The clock starts ticking
The University now heads into the waning stages of the case with the expected goal of emerging free of sanctions — under the defense that the NCAA’s case was an overreach into a purely academic matter.
The wide range of NCAA consequences possible could range from a vacation of past wins to loss of scholarships or the stripping of a national championship.
“Whatever they decide to do will have been dictated by their calculations about how it will all look in the end,” Smith said. From Thursday’s end, the clock started ticking on what could be the final phase of the years-long process.
Osburn said the deliberation and sentencing process won’t culminate in a final public report for 60 to 90 days — typically, at which point, the University could appeal the decision. Details of the case will continue to be restricted until a final resolution is reached.
Enterprise Editor Corey Risinger contributed reporting.
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