A number of years ago while catching March Madness on a TV backstage at the annual Spring Gridiron Club banquet with a few white-tied guests, I allowed out loud that I would take the whole thing more seriously when the NCAA managed to look at the University of North Carolina’s regulatory practices, including recruiting.
“Well, I certainly hope that doesn’t happen anytime soon, if ever,” an obvious UNC fan standing next to me said as one of his team’s stars sunk another 3-pointer. “I’m the governor of North Carolina.”
So much for my famous tact.
The incident came to mind recently when the overseers of college athletics diluted a major complaint against North Carolina that looked to the entire sports establishment as the first step in another whitewash of a scandal in a big-time program. This one reached over two decades and encompassed thousands of students — many of them athletes in major-revenue sports. If you haven’t been paying attention, this involved fraudulent “paper classes” that helped keep them eligible.
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But a week or so ago, the NCAA’s powers who have life or death over college and university programs softened things dramatically by issuing a new complaint that eliminated the words “particularly in the sports of football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball,” they had included in the original. The change came shortly after North Carolina lost to Villanova in the national championship basketball game.
That’s not to suggest there is any connection between the loss and the alteration of the complaint, which by the way, many critics felt should have been settled some time ago and not in North Carolina’s favor to the extent of even denying them eligibility for the tournament in the first place.
Those who follow such things closely know that the big athletic governing organization has been facing major challenges over its policies that exploit its “student” participants in all sports, denying them shares of the cash they produce, are careful about indicting the activities of the five power conferences, and relying on a monstrous regulatory handbook that leaves schools open to the dreaded allegation of a lack of institutional control.
It can’t be lost on the institution’s hierarchy that this latest move has all the trappings of excusing a major-revenue player that cost them another chunk of their credibility. If your college is a fringe player in the major division, watch out. To prove they’re a responsible protector of the integrity and sanctity of college athletics, the NCAA’s gumshoes are watching you.
Jerry Tarkanian, the late, legendary basketball coach at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who was frequently in the sights of the NCAA’s enforcement goons, once observed that “the NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it probably will add another two years probation on to Cleveland State.”
According to the New York Times, the consensus after the change in the complaint’s wording “was good news for those who hoped the Tar Heels had escaped” the harshest penalties, both past and future, that could include vacated wins and titles, postseason bans, recruiting restrictions and action against longtime coach Roy Williams. The Times said several players from the 2005 championship team had taken part in the phony classes.
The University of North Carolina is the oldest public institution of its kind in the nation. It was founded in 1795 and its academic reputation is legitimately to be admired. Why it would risk this sort of black mark on that extraordinary profile is unfathomable. There seems to be only one answer: greed. Protection of the revenue streams that pour in through its fabled programs — both basketball and football — may have been its misguided undoing.
Probably there are other “elite” schools among the powerhouse conferences whose claims that their high academic standards also apply to athletes are vulnerable to dispute. But if the recently revised attitude of the NCAA as indicated by its North Carolina action that a college has the right to set its own course requirements even if some are phony or nonexistent they have nothing to worry about.
So much for the NCAA’s insistence that it is an organization that defends the principles of education first. Don’t forget, this is an institution run by college presidents who must always have a weather eye out for a financial storm as well as academic excellence.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.