UNC received an amended Notice of Allegations from the NCAA on Monday and with it came a few significant changes from last year's NOA. The most prominent of those changes was the removal of the allegations regarding impermissible benefits regarding the AFAM classes, the removal of men's basketball and football and reducing the time frame to just six years. What does it all mean? Let's look at it.
Why did the impermissible benefits allegation go away?
The short answer is the NCAA rules didn't support charging UNC for improper benefit as it related to access to certain classes. Inside Carolina was ahead of the curve on this prior to the new NOA and Jay Bilas has noted it at length in his radio interviews this week. Athletes having access to less than rigorous classes isn't something the governing body has rules to address. As Bilas noted, this is by design since the last thing academia wants is an athletic association poking around in matters of academic free and curriculum decisions.
The first NOA was an attempt by the NCAA to address the AFAM classes but do it in a context it was accustomed to handling i.e. improper benefits. And one level it a creative move and on the surface actually made some sense. It was also fraught with various problems. The foremost was the absence of NCAA rules covering it. Secondly, the argument could be made athletes enjoy special access to academic assistance and preferential class registration so why would doing it for AFAM classes be any different?
Even if you somehow overcome those problems, once you follow the allegation to its logical conclusion it is clear the NCAA would still be acting as an arbiter of class rigor. Why? Because the ease of the class with it's minimum requirements and lax grading was the improper benefit. If that were the case then couldn't the same standard be applied to other classes? And what standard is that? If a school has independent studies that are legitimate but maybe easier than other classes and a school ensures that athletes get first dibs on those is that an improper benefit?
Essentially that was where this allegation was headed. At some point in the process the NCAA would have to argue why the classes were an improper benefit and in doing so would be forced to set some sort of standard on academic rigor. Since the NCAA has no desire to address those types of questions, it was abandoned in the amended NOA.
The NCAA's version of academic fraud isn't what people think it is.
Throughout this entire scandal the media and critics shouted at anyone who would listen that UNC engaged in years and years of academic fraud. That fraud stemmed from the fact the AFAM classes were misrepresented as lecture courses, had lax grading standards, didn't include much in the way of student-instructor interaction and had just one assignment. In short the classes didn't meet the school's own standard for academic rigor and one could argue didn't provide an appropriate educational value.
In that respect the classes were certainly irregular per UNC's own rules. Whether they could be considered academic fraud rest on whether grades were given out without work being done. Based on the various probes into this matter, it appears work was required even if said work was graded with a less than discerning eye. The fact work was required, subsequently turned in and the nature of the grading was the same for non-athletes and athletes alike placed this issue outside of the NCAA's rules on academic fraud.
According to the NCAA rule book, academic fraud is the arrangement of credit for an athlete by a person at the school. In practice that means working being done for the athlete by a tutor or other individual. It could also mean an athlete being given a grade in a class without doing any work. In UNC's case the only clear cut versions of this are with Jan Boxill and women's basketball. Boxill was associated with the women's basketball team and evidence points to Boxill arranging grades and outright performing work for women's basketball players.
While men's basketball and football players may have been taking AFAM classes there isn't any evidence those players had the work done by tutors or anyone else. Since the NCAA isn't taking issue with the nature of the classes themselves, players enrolling in those classes does not constitute any sort of violation of the rules. Only women's basketball, with a clear paper trail of illicit academic assistance provided by Boxill, is the only program being charged with actual violations.
Just because McCants, Willingham and Co. said it doesn't mean UNC can be charged with it
Part of the issue with how the amended NOA is perceived lies with the reliance on information that isn't part of the NCAA case. The outcry against men's basketball is rooted in claims made by Rashad McCants and Mary Willingham against the program and Roy Williams specifically. Willingham has made claims about football also which clouds the perception on the NCAA's actions and the NOA itself. The various claims out there and the constant drumbeat of Dan Kane in his efforts to push the "men's basketball is guilty" narrative have served as the basis for how the national media and public view this case. The perception is men's basketball used fake classes to keep players eligible and win championships.
The problem is no investigation has ever concluded that, not even Wainstein. In fact one of the more striking aspects of the Wainstein Report is while it validated much of what Dan Kane and others had alleged about the academic scandal it mostly left men's basketball alone. In fact men's basketball was largely exonerated save some questions about what Wayne Walden knew and when he knew it. Clearly the NCAA has looked at the evidence in hand and concluded much the same or else men's basketball would have been included in the new NOA.
What this tell us is regardless of what McCants, Willingham, Kane or anyone else might think or say, none of that has been taken as credible evidence by either Kenneth Wainstein or the NCAA. Wainstein made this point clearly when he basically said since McCants refused to speak with his staff, whatever he said can't be considered as evidence. The same is true for the NCAA which has never spoken to McCants who apparently doesn't want any part of talking to people who can challenge his assertions with facts.
That being the case, what you are left with the NCAA considering a body of evidence that simply doesn't end up where some in the media and ABCers wanted it to go. The NCAA can only allege what it can prove and in this case there apparently isn't ample proof of wrongdoing by the men's basketball program. Maybe that just worked out for UNC or maybe there wasn't anything other than players taking the classes.
Side note: It is interesting that the NCAA or Wainstein doesn't consider McCants and Willingham reliable but individuals pushing the narrative are perfectly willing to accept their claims at face value. It's like they will believe practically anyone who spouts the "right" message.
What does it all mean?
Let's be clear. This is a terrible scandal for UNC and the allegations brought by the NCAA are the most serious kind the enforcement division can bring against a school. The charges against UNC illustrate administrative malfeasance at an inexcusable level. The failure of oversight on both the academic and athletic sides produced this mess and the hit to UNC's reputation will take quite some time to repair. It should also be noted UNC will face stiff penalties even if they aren't directed a certain programs. The cloud still hangs over Chapel Hill and UNC's reputation remains sullied.
However for many people in the Tar Heel fan base and outside of it, the evaluation of his cases has always hinged on what happens to men's basketball and to a lesser extent football. UNC fans have taken the amended NOA with much relief because it excluded mentions of the two "money" programs. Assuming the Committee on Infractions doesn't decide to simply drop a train on every program, it stands to reason men's basketball won't lose any banners, wins or endure a postseason ban. If that is the case then no matter how serious other penalties the NCAA doles out might be, many UNC fans will consider it a victory if men's basketball is spared.
Likewise ABCers and members of the media invested in a certain result will regard the absence of serious penalties against men's basketball as though the NCAA didn't really punish UNC. Anything short of banners coming down and a postseason ban was always going to be seen as a slap on the wrist by the NCAA. The amended NOA, at least with men's basketball not being mentioned, appears to be headed that way. If it does unfold in that manner, the narrative will be how UNC got away with two decades of cheating and the NCAA didn't seriously punish this massive scandal.
The real intriguing part of all of this is the NCAA actually has a negligible role in terms of actually addressing what happened at UNC. For the most part, UNC has spent the better part of the last five years addressing the academic scandal with meaningful reforms. Those responsible have been held accountable or in some cases outright dismissed from the school. Much of the leadership which allowed this scandal to happen has been replaced with people taking tangible steps to clean it up. UNC has already answered to SACS regarding the AFAM scandal and taken steps towards fixing a broken system. Since the scandal had its genesis on the academic side it has been up to the academic side to invest in making the necessary changes. Based on the available information that has happened and continues to happen.
Whatever the NCAA does or doesn't do has zero bearing on actually addressing the problems that led to the academic scandal. The NCAA penalties, which they are finally handed down, won't spawn any new reforms or do anything to address the oversight problems that led to the classes operating so long without anyone noticing. It will be a pound of flesh extracted in the interest of satisfying NCAA justice and nothing more.
The NCAA has a job to do in enforcing the rules on the book and the amended NOA appears to reflect that more so than the first one. As for dealing the real issues stemming from the academic scandal, the NCAA simply isn't relevant and quite frankly never has been.