The University of North Carolina this week signaled to the NCAA that six years of taking a knee is enough, and sent a warning shot over Indianapolis that it was lawyered up and prepared to defend itself against allegations concerning its athletics programs that it says are inaccurate, inflated and wayward.
Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham, in speaking to the media about the university’s response to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations, said UNC had failed to meet its own standards by allowing “classes that didn’t meet our rigor,” but said that was an academic issue, and none of the NCAA’s business.
The university also pointed out that massive reforms have been put in place, and apologies extended.
Cunningham hinted that the university wasn’t anxious to self-impose sanctions, apparently believing that the firing of an entire football staff, the forced departures of an athletics director and chancellor, banning itself from two post-season bowl games in football, and forfeiting athletic scholarships, was sufficient penance.
What Cunningham didn’t mention as part of the penalty already paid was six years of largely inaccurate media coverage, which the university’s athletics programs, especially the money-making football and men’s basketball teams, have weathered remarkably well. But that coverage established a false narrative that continues to this day — and is why those paying attention part-time expect UNC to get the electric chair.
Except no, the African and Afro-American Studies Department that disproportionately attracted athletes to its classes was not created to keep them eligible to compete. And no, not a single UNC coach has been shown to have steered a student into the AFAM classes or to ask that a change of a grade be made to keep an athlete on the field or court. And no, not a single coach or anyone else tied to UNC’s athletics program has even been accused of providing a recruit a benefit if they would sign the dotted line to bring their skills to the Chapel Hill campus.
If any of that had happened, then one or more of the nearly double-digit investigations would have revealed it given the access university officials provided, especially to emails.
UNC copped to some of the allegations, specifically that a faculty chairwoman who advised women’s basketball players provided improper assistance to students and suggested a single grade change during a seven-year period. Jan Boxill, the accused who was subsequently fired, continues to claim scapegoat status.
But the university rejected the NCAA’s allegation of loss of institutional control, the biggest threat to the athletics programs, though basketball and football appear safe from debilitating sanctions.
Fortifying UNC’s case is this Perry Mason moment: A UNC official while in Indianapolis by chance discovered an internal NCAA memo that warns staff it is in tricky territory, saying nothing had been found that “would validate that there was a systematic effort within the African and African American Studies Department motivated by the desire to assist student-athletes with maintaining their eligibility, either in how the courses were created, taught and/or how the grades awarded.”
A hearing is likely in the fall before the NCAA’s Committee of Infractions, which will determine penalties. And while UNC officials appear confident, the NCAA can be arbitrary — and might feel compelled to come down hard because of UNC’s well-known brand and the public’s expectations based largely on ignorance of the truth.
It’s clear, however, that UNC is off the mat and is prepared to go to court if the NCAA overreaches. And the Tar Heels, as their opponents know, have always been good at winning.