For the record, we are not comparing the Penn State and UNC scandals because that would be really stupid.
On Wednesday, some interesting emails between NCAA officials discussing what to do about Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse were made public. The emails about that the NCAA's approach to Penn State might provide some insight into how UNC's case will be handled or not handled when time finally comes.
As you may recall, following the revelations that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had engaged in the sexual abuse of minors over several years, sometimes at the Penn State facilities, the NCAA decided to levy punishment against the school. Those sanctions included a multi-year bowl ban, 111 vacated wins, scholarship reductions and a $60 million fine. In recent months, the NCAA has scaled some of those penalties back after coming to the realization it may have overreached during the "torches and pitchfork" phase of public outrage following the release of the Freeh Report.
Last year, Pennsylvania state senator Jack Corman took issue with the NCAA's $60 million fine which was slated to go to organizations outside the state. Corman says that money should remain in the state and has filed lawsuit against the NCAA to make that happen. That lawsuit and the probing discovery that goes with it has brought to light the email exchange between NCAA officials on how to handle the Penn State case when it was at its zenith.
Via Onward State:
Not only did the NCAA admit that it was bluffing Penn State when it extorted it into signing the consent decree — it admitted that, without Penn State complying out of embarrassment (or whatever reason Old Main gives these days), it didn’t have jurisdiction to act.
"I know we are banking on the fact the school is so embarrassed they will do anything, but I am not sure about that, and no confidence conference or other members will agree to that," wrote NCAA Vice President of Academic and Membership Affairs Kevin Lennon on the same day. "This will force the jurisdictional issue that we really don’t have a great answer to that one…"
The emails also show that the officials question whether Penn State received a competitive advantage as a result of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse not coming to light sooner, which was at the heart of the justification for the sanctions (i.e. vacating wins because, had Sandusky’s conduct been revealed in 1998, Penn State wouldn’t have been able to attract the level of talent it did during that time).
What does this mean, if anything, for UNC's case that is presently before the NCAA? Probably not much tangible but there are some interesting aspects to both to compare and contrast.
The first is the fact the NCAA actually does have jurisdiction when it comes to the details of the Wainstein Report. That report included a number of actual rules violations and the NCAA could possibly apply academic fraud rules to the AFAM paper classes creating retroactive eligibility concerns. The NCAA also has an active investigation in progress which means the governing body should(not a guarantee mind you) adhere to their stated process for discovering violations, alleging them and having UNC appear before the Committee of Infractions prior to handing out additional sanctions. Assuming that happens, UNC could be protected some from the fact the NCAA would need to present actual allegations of violations and not just say "this was really bad, here's your punishment." All that being said, the NCAA could very well follow the process, allege the violations then hand down sanctions that far exceed the violations found. The length of UNC's scandal could be impetus for a lack of institutional control charge and regarded as an aggravating factor raising the level of punishment against UNC.
In terms of the bigger picture, it needs to be pointed out that this is the NCAA the purveyors of hot takes were calling on to hammer UNC. The NCAA readily admits in internal emails that it had no jurisdiction to punish Penn State and banked on Penn State's own embarrassment to take the bluff and agree to heavy sanctions. It is this organization, bereft of any sort of credibility really, that people are holding up as the avenging angel that should strike UNC with the "fury of God's own thunder." The fact so many are permitting the NCAA to borrow some credibility just so UNC can get pummeled might be the most amazing part of the outrage to date.
Penn State's situation is informative to UNC's in this regard. The NCAA acted then based on the hot takes and moral outrage of the moment. People were upset about what happened at Penn State and rightfully so, the details of the scandal were beyond the pale disgusting and involved a school covering up actual criminal activity where children were victims. While the outrage regarding UNC's scandal pertains to issues which are trivial by comparison there is the same sort of outrage and clamoring for harsher than harsh penalties. In Penn State's case the NCAA reacted to that outrage and in doing so significantly overstepped its authority. Later, when everyone had calmed down, the overreach was clear and the NCAA has relaxed some of the sanctions. For UNC's case the NCAA has the authority but also the benefit of time. The normal investigative process will need to play out which means the final disposition on UNC's fate won't come for several months. At that point the public furor will have moved on to fifteen other things by then. Whatever penalty the NCAA lays out then won't be tied to answering the mob's pleas for justice but rather an actual list of violations. In theory it should be less about reacting to something bad and steeped more in the enforcement process. UNC could still get hammered but at least it will be less of an cathartic exercise for the sake of the torch and pitchfork crowd.
Then again, this is the NCAA, it clearly can do anything it wants. However, the lack of credibility and the NCAA's own admission of trying to "bluff" Penn State should give UNC plenty of reason not simply roll over to whatever demands are brought by enforcement. The NCAA is clearly exposed here and while there might be some aspects of the case UNC can't argue, there are other elements Bubba Cunningham and Vince Ille can and should push back on. UNC will receive some form of sanctions but at the same time Tar Heel administrators shouldn't simply open the door because the NCAA starts huffing and puffing.