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How the perception around UNC’s academic scandal has shifted in the media

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With the third NOA defense out, are we seeing a tonal shift in the national media?

Virginia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It was inescapable during this year’s national title win: those in the national media feeling like they must qualify any praise given to UNC basketball by mentioning the current NCAA, as Roy would say, “junk.” No nuance given, mostly just some greatest hits of what we have heard before. It culminated the Sunday after when Bob Ryan, esteemed writer of the Boston Globe, opined on The Sports Reporters that he felt like the title game would have been better if anyone else had won.

At this point, seven years into the scandal, we as fans think we know what to expect of those who offer an opinion about the situation. They’ll do a cursory glance over the notes from Dan Kane, feel like they know everything that’s going on, and yell “FOR SHAME” at Carolina. They feel good, and pile on to the train that has been running for a long time now.

It’s been like this for the National Championship game last year, this year, for the second NOA, and so on. Just look at this piece from Jon Solomon, back in August of 2016 when that one was released and infamously removed basketball and football:

Who knows what negotiations have occurred behind the scenes between UNC and the NCAA? The NCAA made an unusual decision a couple months ago to issue a second notice of allegations (football and men's basketball were removed entirely by name as beneficiaries of the classes). Forget about UNC suggesting self-imposed penalties this week. UNC's response skipped right over that and included the bold step of challenging the dreaded "lack of institutional control" label.

I could quote many, many…many…more, but by now we pretty much all know the words. Even Solomon, when trying to examine the legal argument that UNC was serving up, couldn’t help but to be snide about the idea that North Carolina was getting away with something, and being brazen about it, too.

This time around, though, there are whispers of a tonal shift. Within 24 hours of the third NOA response release, two prominent national media outlets were summarizing UNC’s case. This time, not with a condescending sneer, but with an honest-to-God look at the merits of Carolina’s arguments.

Witness Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples. Back in 2015, when the first NOA went out, he wrote this piece that, while didn’t light Carolina on fire, managed to do the usual Kane praise and snidely chastise Carolina for what they did.

None of the information contained within the NOA was revelatory. What Dan Kane of the Raleigh News & Observer didn’t dig up on his own the past few years, the UNC-funded Wainstein report did. The facts have been clear for a while: For 18 years, UNC offered sham classes that were attended by a highly disproportionate number of athletes. Athletic department-funded academic advisors worked with faculty within the Afro-American Studies Department to ensure athletes stayed eligible by steering them to classes that provided little work and easy high grades.

Now, though, Staples focuses solely on the defense UNC puts up instead of tying the UNC mess into a problem with the NCAA:

This may sound crazy given the depth and the scope of the academic fraud that North Carolina officials have already admitted took place, but the school's response to NCAA’s third notice of allegations suggests that North Carolina’s attorneys have mounted a compelling defense in this case. That may not matter in a process famous for being made up as it goes along, but it’s important to note as the NCAA’s existential crisis continues.

Now, instead of being in the same boat as the NCAA, and the NCAA having the dilemma of how to handle the situation when they are tied together in a lawsuit, it’s framed as an actual argument between the two sides, with UNC being given credit for the case they are putting forward. So what changed? Perspective.

The situation mirrors the most recent investigation into Miami, in that the NCAA kept changing the goalposts, and having to start over due to impropriety on their part, that at some point most folks were just ready to move on. Staples also says one thing that shows he realizes this since the first NOA, something broke that MAY deserve a little more scrutiny than how many folks took a lecture class:

All reasonable people can agree that the scandal at Baylor—that resulted in the firing of football coach Art Briles and president Ken Starr and the eventual resignation of athletic director Ian McCaw—is far worse than anything that happened at North Carolina, Louisville or Ole Miss—the other high-profile schools with recent scandals. But the NCAA has no rule to deal with what happened at Baylor. The organization looks toothless enough because it has no mechanism to deal with the biggest problem, and it is under pressure from other members to take decisive action in cases involving academic integrity (North Carolina), using naked women to lure recruits (Louisville) and giving athletes money, goods and services for being good at sports (Ole Miss).

The tone very much is anti-NCAA in that he ends the article with “making it up as it goes along” and doesn’t jeer too much at the “media narrative” line the lawyers from UNC used.

The other journalist who wrote a very reasonable piece on the response was Mike DeCourcy, who it should be noted wrote some of the best stuff during the most recent title run. It’s clear that he’s allowed some license for opinion in the column with this opener: “It’ll all be over soon.” The work goes on to detail the defense only, and mentions the reduction in numbers of athletes taking the classes without the sneer from the N&O’s recap (not linking, and readers of this blog probably wouldn’t click if I did).

Compare that to this take from DeCourcy prior to the title game ine 2016:

Given how long we’ve been hearing about the academic shenanigans at UNC, how detailed the reports have been by the Raleigh News & Observer, by the school’s multiple self-examinations and by the initial NCAA notice of allegations sent to the school last spring, it’s easy to imagine schools that have been recently punished by the NCAA, or those that have committed themselves to abiding by the rules, would be somewhat agitated to see Carolina basketball receive nothing more than a pat on the head by the infractions committee.

Dripping throughout the piece is an opinion that again ties the NCAA and UNC together, both evil, essentially having North Carolina as the bad guy who will sneak out of the store with all the money while getting nary a slap on the wrist.

What changed one year later? Again, perspective. This was written prior to UNC’s heartbreaking loss, and then redemption. Seeing kids who had not a whit to do with this whole mess overcome one of the biggest heartbreaks in sports, plus the ooze that is coming from Baylor being more fresh in our minds, makes it a little easier to paint this story differently. A school has been accused, and it has the right to defend itself.

These two join Jay Bilas, long a critic of the NCAA and likely the only guy who graduated from Duke that UNC fans will grudgingly admit they like. It’s got to be nice for him to not feel like he’s just yelling into the wind here.

Bilas, DeCourcy, and Staples ultimate get at one of the biggest problems with cheering on the NCAA to hammer UNC: you’re cheering on the NCAA. At this point, popular opinion of the organization is lower than ever, and with their lack of power to properly punish ACTUAL crimes being laid bare, it becomes tough to make a 180 and support the organization punishing a school, especially when the ones that get hurt are kids who didn’t even have the option to take the class.

The N&O is going to N&O, and this is not to suggest a tidal wave has happened to change opinions out there. That said, it’s good to see that at least some folks are looking at a broader picture when offering their opinions rather than doing a drive-by of Dan Kane.