Day one of the NCAA hearing has come and gone and all is quiet on the western front. Predictably, everyone involved is on radio silence in Nashville, Tennessee.
In many ways, the last round of correspondence from the NCAA enforcement staff made it clear that speaking out about the hearing or the investigation would not be tolerated. The most anyone could have realistically hoped for was a UNC official giving the mild, “we respect the process and are happy to have the opportunity to present our case.” The other standard, “we don’t comment on ongoing investigations” was not available given how much comment has already been given.
If there has been no comment, can we surmise what occurred?
Regardless of the fact that there are no criminal charges pending or contemplated, this is very much an adversarial proceeding where basic litigation strategy applies. Even in the circumstance where the prosecutor and hearing officials are essentially the same, there are a lot of lawyers involved for a reason.
There is one common goal; a quick and final resolution. University officials and fans have grown numb to the possibility of an extensive appeals process. NCAA officials have no interest in the continued erosion of public support as the process drags on. So the question becomes, is a resolution possible?
UNC will open their presentation by thanking the enforcement staff and infractions committee for the time and effort that has been expended. They will point to the extensive and multiple investigations that have occurred, mostly in an attempt to deflate any notion that this hearing will contain a “gotcha” moment. They will then admit wrongdoing.
Importantly, this admission will come from the school, but not from the coaches. There is no question that the academic situation that was allowed to persist is an embarrassment to the institution and a stain on its reputation. Incredible efforts have been undertaken to make meaningful improvements. Numerous members of the faculty and staff that were involved are no longer at the school. Change for the better has come.
Looking to the facts of the case, the most important point for the seven members of the committee to understand is that the classes were not fake. Sports writers have called them fake (or “faux” to sound more sophisticated). Pundits have called them fake. Rival fan-bases have called them fake.
The enforcement staff has not called them fake. Unquestionably, the classes had a paper requirement. It was not a rigorous requirement, nor was the quality such that the school is proud to have offered them. Those requirements, however, are outside the purview of the NCAA. That is why the entire matter has already been adjudicated by the Southeastern Association of Colleges and Schools. UNC deserved to be investigated and punished for the classes. It already was.
Discussions about conflicts of interest and procedural improprieties will likely be kept to a minimum. These only serve as markers in the hearing; they are subtle warnings that any adverse rulings would face substantive appeals. UNC’s sword in this battle is the possible success of an ancillary legal action, the embarrassment of the NCAA, and, potentially, a significant setback to its enforcement authority.
The enforcement staff’s and committee’s sword is the threat of vacating multiple national championships. At this point, even the committee knows that the death penalty is a wild overreach. The new best case is that athletes were steered toward these classes, which constituted impermissible benefits. It would be a novelty for the loss of institutional control to mean the academic side of the institution instead of the athletic side. If the enforcement staff can’t demonstrate that coaches were involved, there will be no death penalty.
These are the lines drawn in the sand. The University will have to be flexible in its continuing acceptance of blame and submission to the authority of the NCAA. The Infractions Committee will have to understand that its reputation has already been irreparably tarnished and it will never make the ABCers happy. There must be a middle ground where both sides can walk away and the matter can be concluded.
If there is not, this process will proceed through administrative appeals and then a lawsuit. Without an agreement, this hearing only marks the halfway point.