A Bridge Too Far

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

UNC worked for months to try and resolve Hairston's case favorably but in the end there was too many factors to overcome.

UNC announced on Friday they would not seek reinstatement from the NCAA for P.J. Hairston who was suspended indefinitely over the summer after running afoul of the law and NCAA rules. While UNC has not released any details concerning what kind of violations Hairston committed, a little reading between the lines of Leslie McDonald’s reinstatement documents painted a bleak picture for the junior wing guard’s ongoing eligibility. While McDonald was held responsible for somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of the rental car usage discovered by UNC and the NCAA, roughly 75% of those benefits fell on an unnamed individual. That individual was most certainly Hairston with conservative estimates putting the potential value of his improper benefits at over $4000. And that is what can be gleaned from the report on McDonald. According to Inside Carolina, Hairston may have also been doomed by "inconsistencies" in his testimony to the NCAA.

The details of Hairston's case left UNC in an impossible situation. The school could apply for reinstatement but such an application would almost certainly be denied which opens the door to a whole host of issues. There is an old adage with lawyers that they never ask a question without knowing the answer. By extension if you know the answer is going to be damaging, it probably pays not to even ask the question. It is important to remember that the NCAA is not blind to the facts prior to the reinstatement request. UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham stated that the review was done jointly with the NCAA and both sides knew the facts of the case. Since the depth of the violations was fully understood, the NCAA's  response to a reinstatement request would have been a foregone conclusion. On the surface it might look as though Bubba Cunningham and the administration have given up on Hairston but that is not what happened.The battle for Hairston’s eligibility has been going on for months and is not fully told in whether or not UNC files for reinstatement. Cunningham said despite their best efforts that the facts of the case simply didn't support reinstatement leading to a decision announced today.

In this case, actually filing the request could do more harm than good to both UNC and Hairston. Because UNC is a public entity all communications are subject to freedom of information type laws. That includes a reinstatement request to the NCAA on the behalf of a student-athlete which is how the details of McDonald's case became public. If UNC files a request they know is doomed to fail, all they are doing is exposing the particulars of the violations for the media and critics of UNC to pick apart. UNC must also guard against the possibility of releasing details and that leading to additional scrutiny.  As for Hairston, part of being drafted into the NBA also includes teams doing a deep background check on the player. It is imperative for him to control any details he can as he goes through the interview process with teams. Not that he would hide what happened at UNC from teams, that would be impossible. However it is better for him to present those facts on his terms rather than having a detailed report floating around for several months.

Now that this whole situation has been resolved there will be plenty of handwringing over how these cases were handled. The fan venting in the general direction of UNC compliance will be heavy and to some extent there are some questions that should be asked. Some of McDonald and Hairston’s activities were revealed via social media leading to questions of whether UNC was aware of these postings. Ultimately it was Hairston’s legal troubles that gave life to an investigation of both players.

It is important to remember that what the general public think compliance is and what the NCAA says constitutes good compliance are two different things. While it is easy to view compliance as working to make sure players never break rules in reality compliance is about education, processes and yes some level of monitoring. Certainly issues like this call into question the kind of job UNC is doing in these areas but even great compliance it as the mercy of 18-22 year old athletes making choices. While ripping the NCAA is en vogue now and complaining UNC compliance didn't do it's job is an easy road to take, staying out of trouble with the NCAA rests on players making good decisions. All the processes, seminars and monitoring in the world isn't going to stop a player from choosing to break a rule.

At its root, that is what this whole ordeal is about. P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald made ill-advised choices that carried significant consequences for them, their team and the university. They are college students and among the things many college students excel at is making reckless decisions without regard to the consequences. It happens. It’s disappointing for them. It’s disappointing for their teammates, coaches and any number of people who love North Carolina basketball. Hopefully both players have learned from the experience and more importantly everyone can return their focus to what happens on the court rather than the things that happened off of it.

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