Mark down August 16th on your calendar. After several years of charges, counter-charges, allegations, and replies, UNC and the NCAA will finally meet face-to-face for a hearing regarding the investigation into UNC's Athletics program. The NCAA Enforcement Staff issued a reply to UNC, and the Committee will hear the case in three weeks.
Present, per the NCAA's request, will be Roy Williams, Larry Fedora, and Sylvia Hatchell, the head coaches of the three targeted UNC sports programs. The long wait is over. The ongoing, interminable nature of the scandal has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Carolina family, like an arugula salad without dressing. Well, that taste is about to be washed out of our mouths. The only question is what will the choice of mouthwash be? Will it be Listerine? Or Gasoline?
The NCAA came out guns blazing
Brace yourself for the gasoline. The NCAA Enforcement staff issued a fiery and unrelenting reply to UNC's May 26th response to the most recent Notice of Allegations. We predicted as much over the weekend, but to see it in writing was no less jarring.
UNC's course of action has been to deny that the issues regarding the AFAM department fall under the jurisdiction of the NCAA. The NCAA's reply begins with a lecture on exactly why this case DOES fall under the NCAA's jurisdiction in their minds. The reply states "The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA's business." In fact, on six different occasions in that same paragraph the phrase "it is the NCAA's business" is used. One gets the feeling that the NCAA might think it's their business...
The defiant nature of UNC's defense has clearly irked the NCAA enforcement staff. The written reply insists that "this case is not about the enforcement staff or the infractions process. The institution (UNC) invests considerable energy criticizing both." The message from the enforcement staff is very clear: We aren't the problem, you are.
It's important to remember that the enforcement staff is not the group that administers punishment, that's the Committee, but they still hold a tremendous amount of power and clearly are gunning for the Heels now.
The NCAA has narrowed the focus of its case
There has been considerable debate about what exactly the NCAA is charging UNC with, whether it is academic fraud, or lack of oversight, etc. It has become very clear now: Improper Benefits. That's not necessarily a surprise, since it's the only clear bylaw the NCAA is able to enforce, but it crystalizes what the August 16th hearings will focus on.
The primary allegation is that UNC provided "benefits to student-athletes that are materially different from the general student body." This refers to the "unpublicized courses" facilitated by Deborah Crowder that allegedly were made readily available to athletes but not to the rest of the student body (note: the NCAA acknowledges that 52.6% of the students in the classes were non-athletes, UNC says it was closer to 75%).
Crowder described these as "special arrangement" classes and the NCAA claims that these classes were established for the purpose of keeping athletes eligible who would otherwise be ineligible.
But the much more concerning allegation is the nuclear bomb: Lack of Institutional Control. This is the worst charge that the NCAA can issue and in the past it has resulted in programs receiving the death penalty. The enforcement staff claims that to allow these beneficial classes to take place might constitute Lack of Institutional Control.
The question is whether the Committee will go that far as well. That's the worst-case scenario, but with so many in the media and in other schools calling for Carolina's head, you can never be sure how far the NCAA will take it.
The NCAA's argument has a few crucial flaws
A close examination of the Enforcement Written Reply reveals two points that may take the NCAA's argument apart:
First, the enforcement staff in its opening statement makes it clear that "This case is not about so-called fake classes or easy courses." In fact, they acknowledge that UNC "did not deem the classes to be fraudulent" and "continues to argue that the NCAA enforcement staff should not judge academic rigor or revisit classroom decisions. The enforcement staff continues to agree."
Moreover, the enforcement staff states that dealing with such matters should be left to "the sound discretion of individual schools and their accrediting agencies." This seems to be an interesting concession and potentially a fatal misstep for the NCAA.
Think about it: The NCAA admits that judging academic quality is not their job and they have not disputed that the AFAM classes were legitimate (albeit easy). So what exactly is the improper benefit? If the classes aren't fraudulent, then there's nothing wrong with student-athletes taking them and remaining eligible as a result. The NCAA will doubtless make the case that student-athletes were steered into the classes, but if the majority of students were non-athletes, then claiming them as an athletic benefit is bogus.
Secondly, in the section entitled "Systemic Problem and the Non-identification of Specific Student-Athletes" (yeah, that sounds like a real page-turner) the enforcement staff acknowledges that "it is not possible to specifically list each student-athlete who received an extra benefit." They attribute this to "the lack of personally identifying information in the institution's records." Basically, they are sure that student-athletes received extra benefits, but they don't know which ones. They claim that this represents a "systemic problem," not an individual one.
OK, then why isn't Anson Dorrance getting called to the panel hearing? Why isn't the men's tennis team under fire? Or the lacrosse teams? Seriously, if you don't know which athletes received the benefits, then why target the basketball and football teams specifically? How can you punish a program for impermissible benefits if you can't determine which specific athletes received the benefits?
The best part is that the enforcement staff knows and acknowledges this, saying "The enforcement staff appreciates the challenge this presents in fashioning penalties." Uh...ya think?
What does this mean For UNC?
Well, I suppose the most obvious thing it means is that this particular stage of the nightmare will be decided soon enough, with the hearing coming in the middle of August. No more delays and amended Notices of Allegation. Everyone will be in the same room and have the chance to have their say in person.
What it also means is that it will be quite the showdown. The rhetoric between UNC and the NCAA has been steadily more acidic. UNC has repeatedly challenged the NCAA's authority and more recently implied that they are overly influenced by Carolina haters in both the media and in member institutions. The NCAA's response was to wave Carolina's arguments aside and issue a patronizing lecture on NCAA bylaws.
Finally, it seems to indicate that this will be a make or break hearing for UNC. The charges put forward by the enforcement staff, mixed with UNC's repeated defiance of the NCAA, makes it highly doubtful that a slap on the wrist punishment will be issued to the Heels. They're either going to win or lose badly. Don't pin your hopes on the NCAA docking a few scholarships for a year or two. If they choose to whack UNC, it'll be with a sledge.