North Carolina goes all in, tells NCAA to stay in its lane

Pat Forde
College football and basketball columnist

And now, at last, the North Carolina vs. NCAA high-stakes poker game moves to the main event – with the Tar Heels showing no intention of folding.

Next stop for this meandering infractions case based on the Mother of All Academic Scandals is a hearing before the Committee on Infractions. That will likely happen late this summer. When a ruling is handed down sometime thereafter, we may mercifully have some closure.

Whether we also have justice could be another matter entirely.

Thursday, a diplomatic but unapologetic North Carolina made public its response to the latest Notice of Allegations in the endless case – the third such one, as UNC officials pointed out both via email and repeatedly on a conference call with the media. (If you got the feeling the school wants to express an attitude of being the aggrieved party here, you weren’t alone.)

This most recent response to the NCAA from UNC is basically a restatement of its position all along: Stay in your lane. This is an academic issue and an institutional issue, not an NCAA rules issue. And good luck finding an applicable bylaw within your bloated rulebook to cover it.

From the school’s response: “The NCAA’s constitution and bylaws apply to basic athletics issues. NCAA legislation does not extend to matters related to academic structure, content, and processes on a member institution’s campus.”

Athletic director Bubba Cunningham reinforced that on the conference call: “The fundamental issue … is that NCAA bylaws cover athletic matters.”

North Carolina didn’t back down from the NCAA. Will it pay off for the school? (Getty)

The fact that a whole bunch of athletes benefited from bogus classes doesn’t make it an extra benefit when an even bigger bunch of non-athletes benefited from those classes as well, UNC is saying.

“The courses in issue … were available to all students in the same manner,” the UNC response to the NOA said. “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.”

That’s Carolina’s story, and the Heels are sticking to it. Sticking to it so doggedly that they have performed none of the traditional damage-control tactics employed by most college sports miscreants.

No staffers within the men’s basketball program have been fired. No banners have come down. No wins have been vacated. No scholarships have been sacrificed. No postseason ban has been implemented.

The academic side of campus has been through a convulsive period of turmoil in relation to this scandal. The football program paid a significant price for agent-related issues a few years ago. The women’s basketball program seems on the brink of major sanctions.

But the golden goose of men’s hoops? Fat and happy and untouched, with consecutive appearances in the national championship game further feathering its nest.

Cunningham acknowledged that there was consideration of self-imposed sanctions, an alternative he discussed with Yahoo Sports several years ago. But the school decided against it then and sure isn’t open to it now.

“Self-imposition of penalties are not part of the response we’ve submitted,” Cunningham said Thursday.

So the institutional stance is pretty clear: We’re not falling on our sword, and we seriously doubt the NCAA can skewer us, either.

Thus the NCAA is facing one of its greatest credibility challenges, in what is a very important summer for the enforcement department. There are three major cases all expected to reach closure this year: Louisville basketball escort scandal; Mississippi in multiple sports (but primarily football); and the UNC saga.

In all three cases, outside parties provided the majority of the revelations: The ‘escort queen’ who wrote a book about Louisville; the multiple individuals who fragged Ole Miss offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil; and the cascade of internal and external investigations that got to the bottom of nearly two decades of academic fraud at UNC.

So there are fresh questions about the ability of NCAA investigators to catch the cheaters without a whole lot of external help. And then there will be great attention paid to the penalties applied in these cases – especially the North Carolina case.

If UNC’s argument holds – that there is nothing in the rulebook that can be applied to this scandal – then the NCAA would have to get creative to apply penalties. The last time it got creative was the Penn State case, veering outside the bylaws in search of a way to penalize the school that enabled the monstrous deeds of Jerry Sandusky. That freelance effort ended badly, with the association walking back its penalties and with third-degree burns to president Mark Emmert’s reputation.

After that and the bungled Miami infractions case, the NCAA has become a more circumspect – and, some would say, more cautious – enforcement entity. But the national outrage over North Carolina has simmered for years, and that outrage might have helped spur the third and most aggressive Notice of Allegations against the Heels, which was delivered last December. It certainly was an accusatory escalation over the second NOA, delivered in April 2016, which didn’t even mention the words “men’s basketball.”

Much of the nation believes UNC athletics should be hammered – in particular King Basketball. UNC’s latest response to the NCAA clearly indicates a belief that not only should the basketball program not be hammered, it shouldn’t be touched.

That’s the hand the Tar Heels will bring to the infractions table this summer, and they’re all in with that unapologetic strategy. It might just be bold enough to work.

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