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North Carolina Was Always Going to Get Off in the NCAA’s “Paper Class” Investigation

The college sports governing body let off UNC without any major sanctions after conducting a prolonged examination of academic fraud among Tar Heels student-athletes. The NCAA’s ruling may spark outrage, but it shouldn’t be surprising.

UNC mascot with “B+” penciled on Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Friday, the NCAA finally—six-plus years after being notified of “new issues with student-athletes,” following one internal investigation and two investigations headed by politicians—issued its punishment to the University of North Carolina in the academic fraud case that took place in Chapel Hill for almost two decades. And boy, was the organization’s final ruling a doozy. The Tar Heels were hit with … a five-year show-cause penalty for the former chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (otherwise known as “AFAM”). And that’s it? None of the athletic programs were given sanctions AT ALL? Wait, WHAT???

For those who followed this case closely from the onset, it should come as no surprise that the men’s basketball program—whose involvement in the scandal turned it into a massive story in the first place—was let off the hook. But for a large portion of the general public that believes the Tar Heels basketball program should have burned to the ground years ago, seeing the news that the defending national champions will skate has sparked a collective sense of outrage.

The timing of this announcement doesn’t help matters. After all, although the NCAA’s investigation into the AFAM department at North Carolina didn’t start until department chair Julius Nyang’oro resigned in August 2011, that investigation was a byproduct of a separate scandal that dates back to July 2010 and pertains to impermissible benefits received by the football team. And the NCAA doesn’t typically take this long hand down a ruling. Since 2010 it has doled out notable punishments to Ohio State (for the tattoo scandal), Miami (for impermissible benefits provided by mega-booster Nevin Shapiro, which included wild parties on Shapiro’s yacht), Penn State (for the horrifying Jerry Sandusky saga), and Louisville (for providing hookers to top high school prospects on recruiting visits). The NCAA has also penalized programs and coaches for countless other violations in the intervening time, from giving former Southern Miss and Tennessee men’s basketball coach Donnie Tyndall a 10-year show-cause penalty for academic and financial improprieties to giving UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma a secondary violation for calling Mo’ne Davis after Davis became the first girl to ever pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series. (This really happened.) As all of these punishments were handed out, though, North Carolina never got its day of reckoning for facilitating the most widespread academic scandal in the history of college sports. Understandably, that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

Given that this decision (or lack thereof, depending on how you look at it) comes now, on a Friday in the wake of the FBI revealing that it had run a two-year sting operation and triggered what could turn out to be college basketball Armageddon, it makes sense why so much skepticism persists. This is a news dump! The NCAA was too scared to punish one of its cash cows! It purposely dragged its feet for six damn years just so it could let Carolina walk when everyone had moved on to a bigger story!

The online conspiracy theories about this investigation have long run rampant, and the NCAA only added fuel to the fire by deciding not to release its findings last Friday as originally scheduled, all because North Carolina’s brass was tied up with events for a new, multibillion-dollar fundraiser campaign. Thus, the announcement was postponed a week, “scheduling circumstances” were cited as the culprit, and a general public that has begun to resemble an angry mob was left irate at the thought of the Tar Heels dictating the terms of their own “punishment.”

The optics of this case have been bad for years, and they seemed to only get worse as the finish line approached. Then the NCAA dropped its report Friday, and those optics went from worse to disastrous. That’s why I think it’s important for the public to know two essential things about this case:

1. North Carolina’s basketball program was never going to get the harsh punishment that many college basketball fans thought it deserved. In fact, if the NCAA had punished the men’s basketball program at all, Carolina would have appealed and likely would’ve won.

2. No matter how much fans want to believe otherwise, the NCAA’s decision in this case has nothing to do with the Tar Heels’ blueblood status in the college basketball hierarchy.

North Carolina men’s basketball Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Since Jerry Tarkanian died in February 2015, the former UNLV coach’s famous quote about NCAA double standards—“The NCAA was so mad at Kentucky they gave Cleveland State two more years of probation”—has gone from being a funny nugget in his obituary to a widespread belief about how America’s biggest collegiate sports governing body operates. This idea that the NCAA protects its biggest money makers while routinely lashing out against the little guy is almost accepted as a universal truth, especially by fans of smaller programs that have been sanctioned in the past. Nevermind that the NCAA forced USC to vacate the 2004 BCS national championship or that USC, Alabama, Ohio State, Florida, Clemson, and Oklahoma have all seen their football programs hit with bowl bans as a result of NCAA violations. And it apparently doesn’t matter that the Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, UConn, and Michigan men’s basketball teams have all been temporarily banned from postseason play, that the Indiana program was gutted by NCAA sanctions in 2008, or that UCLA, Villanova, Ohio State, and Michigan have each had to vacate Final Four appearances. The public treats Tarkanian’s quote as gospel and assumes a grand conspiracy is the explanation for cases such as North Carolina’s, even though any inconsistencies with NCAA punishments are probably better explained by Hanlon’s razor.

With that, allow me to explain in layman’s terms what happened at North Carolina so that you’re more informed than someone who only reads the headlines but also don’t have to wade through countless pages of legalese. Actually, I should rephrase: Allow me to explain what the evidence in this case suggests. I’m not here to tell you what did or didn’t actually happen. You’re free to believe whatever you want, and I certainly wouldn’t blame any fan for being cynical with a case like this, especially given the current climate of college sports. But the NCAA can’t conduct its business in the court of public opinion, which is why dealing strictly with the evidence is paramount in trying to understand why this case dragged on for so long and, more importantly, why North Carolina’s basketball program wasn’t really punished at all.

Here’s the synopsis of the report put together by former U.S. homeland security adviser Kenneth Wainstein, which was the most thorough investigation into the scandal and was released in October 2014: Debby Crowder was a non-faculty staffer in North Carolina’s AFAM department. She was obsessed with the University of North Carolina, to the point that in the second paragraph of his report Wainstein wrote that her “whole life has revolved around Chapel Hill.” She also developed a soft spot for struggling students because her own academic career didn’t come easily when she was enrolled in the 1970s. So when Nyang’oro took over as AFAM chair and was looser with his management style than his predecessor, Crowder was given more freedom to help the students who needed it. Over time, that help took the form of “paper classes,” which were courses that didn’t take attendance, offered no instruction, and required students to essentially write one paper to earn their grade for the entire term. (Important note: These weren’t “fake classes,” as they’ve often been described. They were real classes. It’s just that they were very, very easy to pass.) Crowder (who, it bears repeating, was not a faculty member) then graded the papers herself, which is another way of saying that she gave out virtually nothing but A’s and B’s with no regard for the papers’ academic quality.

This scheme went on for 18 years. Naturally, many student-athletes found their way into these classes. Sometimes that was because word got out that the classes were easy and the student-athletes did what many others would have and jumped at the opportunity to take a step toward their degree with a minimal amount of effort. Other times it was because they were steered into these classes by their team academic advisers in an effort to boost their GPA and keep the players eligible. Either way, a disproportionate amount of student-athletes ended up in Crowder’s classes: Per the Wainstein report, 47.4 percent of the identifiable class enrollments were comprised of athletes who otherwise made up just over 4 percent of the student body.

The Wainstein report also offers evidence that the football and women’s basketball teams knew that the classes were illegitimate and played an active role in Crowder’s scheme to help keep their players eligible, as academic advisers for both teams often told Crowder that certain players needed to receive specific grades in order to be able to keep playing. (This is why so many people expected the football and women’s basketball programs to get harsher penalties than the men’s basketball team, and why the real story of the NCAA’s decision is that neither were sanctioned at all.) Meanwhile, Wayne Walden, the men’s basketball academic adviser who came to Chapel Hill with head coach Roy Williams in 2003 and left that position in 2009, knew that Crowder graded the papers in the classes, which is to say that he knew some shady shit was going on even if his knowledge of the extent of the operation remains unclear. It’s also unclear whether Walden shared this information with Williams or any other basketball coach; Wainstein reports that Walden “could not recall doing so.”

That’s the gist of the scandal. And I have to admit, it looks reeealllly bad. Making matters worse is the fact that Burgess McSwain, who served as the longtime academic adviser for the men’s basketball team before Walden replaced her, was so close to Crowder that Crowder categorized their relationship as “being like sisters,” according to a footnote in Wainstein’s report. So how is this even a controversy? There were 226 men’s basketball player enrollments in these classes from 1999 to 2009, per the Wainstein report. McSwain’s relationship with Crowder suggests that she had to have known about the sham classes, and even if she didn’t, Walden certainly did.What took so long for the NCAA to reach a decision? How in the hell did North Carolina get away with this? WHY DID THE ENTIRE ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT NOT GET THE DEATH PENALTY???

NCAA Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The key to all of this is that there’s a massive difference between knowing that a class is unusually easy and knowing that it’s fraudulent. Let’s assume that the Carolina men’s basketball coaches and staffers are completely innocent. That seems highly unlikely, of course, as Walden at the very least appears somewhat culpable. But that’s the starting point to understanding Carolina’s argument. It’s no secret that the top athletes who play in elite revenue-generating sports are typically most interested in the “athlete” part of the “student-athlete” moniker. Still, NCAA rules dictate that they must maintain a certain level of academic standing to stay eligible. The obvious solution, then, is to take the path of least resistance by signing up for the easiest classes that the university offers, which is exactly what the Carolina basketball staff encouraged its players to do. In the same way high school students all over America take Home Ec so they can boost their GPA by baking a cake, Carolina athletes took “paper classes” because they knew that they could cruise to nearly effortless A’s and B’s. The basketball team’s academic support staffers probably thought that they wouldn’t be doing their jobs properly if they didn’t suggest these classes to players. It’s not their responsibility to personally accredit every class that players take. The program’s argument is that it simply knew these classes were easy, pushed players in their direction, and that’s it.

The problem that the NCAA is running into is that there isn’t a ton of evidence to refute that story. And I don’t just mean that there isn’t a smoking gun in the form of Williams sending Crowder an email that reads “Thank you for committing academic fraud to keep my players eligible just like I asked.” I mean that even the circumstantial evidence against the men’s basketball team isn’t particularly substantial. It is true that many basketball players took these classes. But Wainstein reports that “the basketball players seemed to find their way to these classes through a variety of routes” and that McSwain and Walden “did not routinely steer players into the classes without the players’ knowledge.” That’s a crucial distinction. Wainstein also reports that many (though certainly not all) men’s basketball players treated the classes as if they were legitimate and put real work into their papers, suggesting that they didn’t realize that they could’ve just banged their head against their keyboards, put their names at the top of their papers, and received an A. Meanwhile, Wainstein reports that upon taking the Carolina job in 2003 and evaluating the academic paths of his inherited players, Williams explicitly asked his staffers to not sign guys up for AFAM classes (although Wainstein’s data show that men’s basketball player paper class enrollment numbers remained steady after Williams was hired). In other words, if Crowder’s entire operation was a scheme designed to keep men’s basketball players eligible, the basketball team itself did a pretty shitty job of going along with it.

Let’s be clear: It’s definitely possible that the basketball program knew about the fraudulent classes from day one and simply did a good job of covering its tracks by creating plausible deniability. But that’s simply conjecture, which is another way of saying that it’s worthless for the NCAA’s purposes. The reality is that the strongest pieces of evidence against Carolina’s men’s basketball team are McSwain’s relationship with Crowder, Walden knowing that Crowder ran the classes despite her not being a faculty member, and all of the accusations that Rashad McCants made during his media tour of 2014. But McSwain’s relationship with Crowder is irrelevant if it can’t be proved that McSwain was in on the scheme (and it can’t). McCants’s refusal to talk about his allegations to investigators despite his eagerness to repeatedly talk about them in front of a television camera kills whatever credibility he ever had. That means this all hinged on Walden. He admitted to knowing that the classes were absurdly easy and that Crowder graded the papers, which theoretically could have been enough for the NCAA to try to hit Carolina with some minor form of punishment. But since it couldn’t prove that Walden knew the classes were fraudulent instead of just “irregular,” the NCAA had no grounds to give the Tar Heels basketball program the harsh sentencing that much of the general public wanted.

Speaking of the NCAA’s lack of grounds, there’s another key point that needs to be made: The NCAA does not have jurisdiction in cases like this. What happened at North Carolina is an academic scandal that involved athletics, not the other way around. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, the chief hearing officer of the NCAA’s infractions panel handling this case, made the same point in a statement that was issued on Friday. “While student-athletes likely benefited from the courses, so did the general student body,” Sankey said. “Additionally, the record did not establish that the university created and offered the courses as part of a systemic effort to benefit only student-athletes.”

More importantly, the athletes involved did not breach their status as amateurs by taking the paper classes. And that’s a problem for the NCAA, which as an organization really only has the authority to deal with amateurism-related violations. This was a lesson the NCAA learned with the Sandusky scandal at Penn State and it’s why Baylor isn’t receiving NCAA sanctions for the sexual assault scandal involving its football program. As heinous as the things that went on at Penn State and Baylor are, criminal matters fall beyond the scope of the NCAA.

The same goes for the accreditation of the classes that North Carolina or any other university offers as part of its curriculum. The only play the NCAA has in the Carolina case is to claim that the athletes received “impermissible benefits” by taking these classes or, more specifically, that the classes were a vehicle for athletes to be given preferential treatment over the student body at large. That argument doesn’t carry much water for a variety of reasons, though, starting with the fact that more nonathletes took “paper classes” than athletes did and that athletes were, on average, given worse grades than the other students in Crowder’s classes. The NCAA also has to factor in the context that athletes have long gotten preferential academic treatment at most major Division I colleges, from having priority class registration times so they can build their schedules around practice and game times to receiving free tutoring that’s provided by the university. And that’s to say nothing of the admissions process at most brand-name schools, which—and this may come as a shock—often admit athletes who are substandard students.

So there you have it. What happened at Carolina was a serious matter, and it should be noted that the university was punished accordingly. North Carolina was placed on probation by its accrediting agency (the most serious sanction short of losing accreditation altogether) and accepted the punishment without much fuss, so any idea that the university “got away with it” is patently false. Meanwhile, as it pertains to the Tar Heels men’s basketball program, it’s important to remember that just because someone benefits from a violation without realizing that a violation is taking place, it does not mean that the person committed a violation, too. And believe me—I get it. I’m fully aware that every person reading this who has a account is absolutely LIVID that I would dare suggest that Carolina’s basketball program might not have known the full extent of what was going on. I get how frustrating (if not suspicious) it is that Wainstein didn’t talk to Dean Smith or Bill Guthridge for his report because both men were dealing with health issues. I get that Walden may very well be Williams’s patsy and that all of this could easily be a master class in how to best get away with fraud. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and there is a ton of smoke coming from the Carolina men’s basketball program in this case.

But until someone in the men’s basketball program is spotted holding the matches and jug of gasoline, there’s not much that the NCAA can do. And that is why the conclusion in this case is such an underwhelming one for neutral fans.

There is no conspiracy at play here between Carolina and the NCAA. This is just a convoluted mess of a case that includes inconclusive evidence and falls outside of the NCAA’s jurisdiction, and it’s been hijacked by largely uninformed people who want to see a blueblood program get destroyed. And look, I’m not saying that these people should drop their pitchforks and calm down. I’m just saying that if you insist on finding proof that the NCAA gives North Carolina basketball preferential treatment, stop talking about this academic scandal and start talking about how the referees dicked over Zach Collins and Gonzaga in the 2017 national title game because, well, that was some legitimate bullshit.