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Will Silence Be Golden For UNC?

Kevin C. Cox

UNC is running silent.

Since the news broke that P.J. Hairston had been arrested for possession of marijuana and with the subsequent news items linking him to rental cars, Roy Williams and everyone else at North Carolina has opted to not comment on Hairston's situation. There have been the routine statements to say facts are being gathered or they are aware and looking into it. Beyond that? Nothing. No press conferences. No interviews on the radio. The wagons have been circled and no one is talking.

The silence should not come as any surprise since athletic director Bubba Cunningham made it clear when Larry Fedora was connected to the coaching vacancy at Tennessee that there would be no comment. Obviously this is a very different issue but the SOP is the same. If there is something going on which carries with it uncertainty or for which no definitive answer can be given, Cunningham is opting for an information lock down.

The question is whether or not this is the right move?

The media abhors a vacuum, mainly because the media is there to report, produce content and fill the voids of silence with something. That means alongside the very legitimate reporting, there will be plenty of speculation. The media will offer opinions, make predictions and shape the story. In addition, the other principals in the story not directly under UNC's control are free to talk to the media offering their take. The figure tied to the car rentals, Haydn "Fats" Thomas has not been bashful talking to the media to defend himself which is certainly his right. However his statements have been problematic, especially for UNC. His willingness to talk fills the vacuum with information UNC would probably rather not be out there.

In that respect the argument can be made for UNC to "get in front of the story" or "control the message" or whatever cliche you'd like to insert here. In saying nothing UNC is conceding the message to a media whose job it is to fill the vacuum and some Durham businessman. That's not a great deal and normally I would advocate combating the speculative narrative with one of your own. At least then there is an effort to shape the narrative in a more favorable manner.

However there are a few factors likely precluding UNC from doing even that. For one what could anyone say that wouldn't be vague comments? No one is discussing the details of Hairston's legal case and there is an even lesser chance any NCAA issues are openly probed. Since the information is limited, that leaves Cunningham or Williams making statements which will simply feed the speculation even more as folks try to glean meaning from whatever is said. Another factor is the information itself. Does UNC know everything? Presumably they know everything from Hairston's perspective but is there more? Is the information in hand extremely damaging and they are still working out what to do with it or Hairston? There are simply too many questions surrounding this still for UNC to discuss it publicly. Doing so risks boxing the school in when something unforeseen pops up not to mention whatever legal or NCAA processes need to play out carry with them a fair amount of uncertainty.

Three years ago when the UNC football scandal hit the fan, around this same time on the calendar, UNC spend a fair amount of time holding press conferences, talking to the media and dealing with the cacophony of newly revealed information as it happened. It was a massive failure in terms of PR management, one Cunningham is apparently unwilling to repeat. Talking about these situations only feeds the beast. Conceding the vacuum to speculation peddlers is actually not a big deal because no matter what anyone does, speculation is going to happen. And if UNC is not in a position to address the facts of Hairston's circumstances, trying to say anything only fuels the speculation even more. It also opens the door for questions and being forced to answer questions which is simply not a good idea. This is why Roy Williams hasn't talked to the media this summer as he always does because such a session would be consumed with Hairston questions.

It was suggested on local radio today that UNC should announce Hairston is suspended indefinitely until the investigation plays out. While that could mitigate some of the push against UNC to say something chances it does very little to change the narrative. And if it turns out Hairston did nothing wrong or is mostly cleared, then he's been suspended for nothing. Besides that, Hairston is not even in summer school and not participating in the offseason practices. His tryouts with Team USA prevented him from starting a summer school class in the second session and since he is not enrolled the NCAA says he cannot take part in team practices. Technically speaking Hairston is serving a suspension of sorts, UNC just hasn't announced it in an official manner.

If I had to guess, I would say Bubba Cunningham would like the first press release of substance on Hairston's situation to also be the last one. UNC is looking for a definitive resolution or as close as they can get to one before talking to the media. It is not ideal since there is a narrative that will be molded without UNC's control or input. However keeping things under wraps until the situation can be dealt with in a clean fashion is absolutely the right move. If, for no other reason, than it is not what Dick Baddour or Holden Thorp would have done.