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What Does the NCAA Do Next?

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NCAA President Mark Emmert demontrating how he intends to crush UNC.
NCAA President Mark Emmert demontrating how he intends to crush UNC.
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

The exhaustive details of the Wainstein Report have now been released to the public with a copy sent to the NCAA for review. While UNC can mostly move forward as it pertains to the academic side of things, the athletic department must wait to see how much damage is wrought for the newly released details. Speculating on potential NCAA action is generally a fruitless endeavor however let's consider what the report revealed and how the governing body might act on it.

Football

The Wainstein Report delved even deeper into the football program's troubles during the Butch Davis era highlighting additional instances of improper tutor help and a "dependence" on the paper classes for player eligibility. The use of the classes had become so prolific(football players were 50% of student-athlete enrollment) that Debbie Crowder's pending retirement in 2009 was greeted with out-and-out panic by academic counselors.

That led to academic counselors briefing coaches on the AFAM paper classes no longer being available and the impact on player eligibility. This part of the report spells out how much the paper classes were being used for eligibility and the coaching staff being aware of it. In that respect it is a stiff rebuttal to Butch Davis' years long mantra that he didn't know anything.

As for actual violations, Jen Wiley's name pops up as one of the tutors providing improper help to players. Another tutor, Whitney Read, followed the same path as Wiley in "crossing the line" when it came to assisting football players with their work. The more shocking detail came in the form of learning specialist Beth Bridger advising tutors not to follow the strict guidelines set forth by the compliance office. In essence Bridger chose to ignore compliance advice and instructed others to do the same.

Another issue was Cynthia Reynolds who directed academic support for football, working with Crowder to get grades changes for eligibility purposes. According to Debbie Crowder, Reynolds provided a list of football players along with the needed grade to remain eligible. As it turns out the suggestions were unnecessary since Crowder says she would give a "fairly high grade" for whatever work was submitted.

The problem with the NCAA coming after football is most of this has essentially been punished already. The sanctions levied by the NCAA in 2012 included Wiley's improper assistance. Adding another tutor to the mix and Reynolds' efforts to have grades changes perhaps could have raised the level of sanctions closer to what USC got for Reggie Bush or it may have turned out the same. At any rate, the NCAA could simply say football was already penalized and leave it at that or pile on more sanctions to the ones UNC is about to emerge out from under.

Women's basketball

Like football, the women's basketball team also included cases of improper tutor help and request for grade changes to maintain eligibility. The big difference here is the tutor committing both of those indirections was Jan Boxill who was also a member of the faculty and Chair of Faculty at one point. The report's narrative of Boxill's involvement is also more detailed than what was seen in football and included some fairly shocking exchanges via email.

In addition to Reynolds’ grade guidance, our email review disclosed several instances where Boxill made specific grade suggestions for her women’s basketball players. In September 2008, for example, Boxill forwarded a paper on behalf of one of her players, to which Crowder responded that "[a]s long as I am here, I will try to accommodate as many favors as possible," presumably signaling her willingness to grant grade requests up to the point of her retirement. As to that particular student’s paper, Crowder then said "Did you say a D will do for [the basketball player]? I’m only asking because 1. no sources, 2, it has absolutely nothing to do with the assignments for that class and 3. it seems to me to be a recycled paper. She took [another class] in spring of 2007 and that was likely for that class." Boxill replied "Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs. I didn’t look at the paper but figured it was a recycled one as well, but I couldn’t figure out from where."

When we asked Crowder and Boxill about this exchange, they admitted their collusion on the grade, but explained that it had nothing to do with eligibility. This was a student-athlete whose playing days were over, who was on the verge of graduation and who needed only a passing grade to get her diploma. They simply ignored the glaring deficiencies in her paper so as to allow her to graduate.

Boxill continued these grade suggestions after Crowder retired. In July 2010, she sent an email to Gore, Crowder’s successor in the AFAM office, forwarding the paper for a woman’s basketball player who was taking a paper class. In the cover email, Boxill commented that the paper "is very good and informative. I would give it an A- or at least a B+." Gore replied that the player "did a good job" on the paper, and that it "looks like an A- to me." Boxill responded with one word – "GREAT!!!" – and the student was ultimately awarded an A- in the course.

When we pressed Gore about this exchange, he denied having assigned the A- himself, but suggested that he may well have passed Boxill’s suggestion on to Nyang’oro, who was the instructor of record for that paper class. Nyang’oro had no memory of that particular basketball player or of Boxill’s suggestion. He did acknowledge, however, that he would occasionally assign specific grades if asked to do so by Boxill. He recalled one particular situation when he gave a women’s basketball player a B+ even though he felt her paper was "terrible" and was a "clear F." He assigned that grade because Boxill had suggested that he do so.

In addition to attempting to get certain grades for basketball players, Boxill also provided illicit help on players' papers. Wainstein notes that Boxill's editing and additions to athlete papers didn't reach the same level as the assistance Wiley provided, it was enough that it probably crossed the line. That being said, Boxill insisted it wasn't wrong for her, as a tutor, to make additions to athlete papers and likely didn't believe she acted improperly.

The issues with women's basketball represents the clearest examples of NCAA violations found in the report. The improper help and grade changes are probably going to be viewed as breaking NCAA rules. In that respect, the women's basketball program may provide the NCAA with an opportunity to dish out punishment to at least one athletic program at UNC. It would be a compromise of sorts and almost certainly put Sylvia Hatchell on the clock for retirement.

Men's basketball

The proverbial holy grail for those who want to see UNC nailed to the wall and the one program out of the three biggest ones implicated that took corrective actions to extricate itself from the AFAM scandal. On the surface, there are no clear cut NCAA violations revealed in the report tied to men's basketball. There were no requested grade changes on behalf of men's basketball players nor evidence of tutors doing work despite what Rashad McCants might say.

If there are issues with the basketball program it lies with the very use of the AFAM paper classes themselves, especially during the years prior to Roy Williams arrival and the first two seasons on his watch. Wainstein cited Crowder always having a connection to the basketball team which undoubtedly raises questions of whether players received special treatment in getting into AFAM paper classes or in the grading of work in general.

Ultimately, the basketball program being subjected to penalties will hinge greatly on how the NCAA addresses the whole AFAM paper class scheme. Does the mere presence of such classes, academic counselor Wayne Walden understanding what they were about and basketball players in 2005 making use of them constitute an NCAA violation? Because the AFAM classes were made up of 53% non-athletes, it may be difficult to argue it was a scheme geared solely towards athletes. Wainstein notes the primary motivation for Crowder being her desire to help other students but placed her support of athletics as contributing factor along with pressure from academic counselors to provide easy classes.

Of course, Roy Williams' decision to move his players away from AFAM would, as Wainstein indicated in his press conference, discounts the notion of basketball being complicit with AFAM. Obviously the classes were used by UNC players when Williams first arrived but within two years he came to understand something wasn't quite right and shifted the players into other areas of study. Much of that was based on Williams' dislike for clustering and preference players attended more structured lecture classes.

At this point, what the NCAA will do with men's basketball, if anything at all, is the most difficult to predict. The absence of definitive NCAA violations in the report means the NCAA would need to be more creative in finding something to charge the program with. The extreme step of removing a championship banner would need to be based on rock solid, irrefutable violations which are not clearly indicated in the report.

The X Factors

There are other elements of this which may lead to NCAA action. One is the length of the scheme set up by Crowder. Eighteen years is a long time and the sheer volume of students, 3100, is a bit staggering. Then again that number is spread out over 18 years and when you start considering just the athletes, the numbers are not nearly as shocking when taking in the much smaller doses they would have been from year to year.  All that being said, the appearance of UNC flaunting the rules for 18 years might not sit well with the NCAA leading to some sort of punishment.

Another factor is whether the NCAA could or would draw a distinction between a scheme initiated in an academic department that proved beneficial for athletes(as well as non-athletes) and a situation where the athletic department dictated the creation and maintenance of these kinds of classes. The way the media presents these findings one might think the latter is the case. In fact, former compliance officer John Infante says this is a clear case of lack of institutional control and the athletic department influencing the academic side of the school in a negative way. The problem with that line of thinking is it is not supported by the facts. The AFAM paper class scheme didn't come to be because the athletic department exerted influence on a professor or academic department. It was created to fulfill personal goals set forth by Deborah Crowder.

There is no evidence in the report that the athletic department acted in a way that corrupted the academic side of the university in the overall creation of the scheme. Only after Crowder set the classes up did you see athletic interests avail itself of them. It is possible to argue that had UNC engaged in proper oversight of the AFAM department and these classes, the issues could have been addressed well before it became a massive problem. The athletic department isn't without blame for bringing in unprepared students and simplifying academic support to an eligibility game but when an academic department decides to behave in this manner, it isn't a clear issue of athletics corrupting academics.

Another potential issue is what people in the athletic department believed about the validity of the classes. Knowing the classes are easier and being aware they function in an unusual manner doesn't necessarily lead one to conclude they are improper by university standards. Roy Williams indicated that he believed if the school offered it then the class must be legitimate. How many others operated on that assumption? If classes are officially offered which benefit athlete and non-athlete alike, is the NCAA really in a position to question department curriculum?

Given the public outcry and the nature of what's described in the report, the NCAA will need to do something substantive. No one knows what that will be because the NCAA is presently struggling to remake itself in the wake of the O'Bannon court decision and questions regarding the enforcement of arcane rules. This situation is also unusual because it really doesn't come down to one program or player but a long running scheme that, in part, benefited athletics. There is also the big question as to what kind of penalty fits here and, as Doc noted on Twitter, what constitutes the "severe" everyone wants? Postseason bans now hurt the wrong people. Vacating wins or taking down banners is extracting a pound of flesh for sake of doing so. The other possible penalties are fines, probation and issuing show-causes to implicated persons.

It just isn't clear what the appropriate response is here and whether you can retroactively prove player ineligibility in an effort to ascertain which games should be forfeited. That likely means the NCAA could take the same approach they did with Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and issue a blanket set of sanctions that meets the standard of "severe." Unlike the Penn State situation, the NCAA is dealing with issues that actually fall within the governing body's purview meaning it could be anything.