Why North Carolina’s titles, wins might be safe from NCAA punishment

How the NCAA punishes North Carolina is anyone's guess.

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Attempting to predict penalties in an NCAA investigation is only slightly less futile than trying to pick an NCAA tournament bracket pool. The Committee on Infractions is notoriously inconsistent from one case to the next.

But that’s particularly true when it comes to the much-chronicled North Carolina academic scandal, even after Thursday’s release of the NCAA’s notice of allegations. That’s because we’ve never seen a case remotely like this one, involving an 18-year-long academic ruse in the school’s African and Afro-American Studies department.

Given the gravity of the charges – five likely Level 1 allegations (the most serious in the NCAA’s new penalty structure), and the use of sinister phrases like institutional control and unethical conduct – it’s a safe bet the committee will come down hard against UNC. But it might not entail the traditional types of sanctions – vacated wins, removal of banners – which those following the story have long anticipated.

Whereas most NCAA infractions cases are sport-specific, this 55-page notice appears carefully constructed NOT to single out cash cow sports football and men’s basketball. The “special arrangements” at the center of the case benefited athletes throughout the department.

How does the committee appropriately punish an entire athletic department for nine years of violations? (The NCAA’s allegations span 2002-11). I can barely attempt to hazard a guess.

Nearly all of the details in the NCAA’s notice were already familiar to anyone who read last fall’s school-commissioned Wainstein report. The news here is how the NCAA chose to quantify the violations. Worth noting, the words “academic fraud” appear just once in the entire report, and only then in reference to the previous NCAA investigation that resulted in the Tar Heels’ 2012 bowl ban.

Instead, the NCAA categorizes this as a case of impermissible benefits. Traditionally it’s applied that verbiage to more conventional seediness like booster handouts and agent payments. In this case, though, “… counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) leveraged their relationships with faculty and staff members in the [AFAM] department to obtain and/or provide special arrangements to student-athletes that were not generally available to the student body.”

In other words, the counselors got their AFAM hookups to make up special classes for their eligibility-endangered athletes.

Normally, athletes who receive impermissible benefits are deemed to have been ineligible, which, when discovered after the fact, leads to vacated wins. But in this case, the NCAA did not specify individual affected athletes (perhaps because there were too many to count). Rather, its focus is on the school itself, whom the letter later accuses of “violat[ing] the NCAA principles of institutional control and rules compliance when it failed to monitor the activities” of its academic counselors.

This section, allegation five, is the closest the NCAA comes to singling out the money sports, noting that the class hookups allowed counselors to “maintain the eligibility of academically at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.”

Women’s basketball may be the team that ultimately gets hit hardest because of the rogue actions of its own academic counselor. Jan Boxill – who in the irony of all ironies was also director of the school’s Parr Center for Ethics – gets her own specific extra benefits allegation of fixing players’ papers and attempting to manipulate one’s grade.

But the committee does not operate in a vacuum. When the still-distant day comes when the committee issues its final verdict (it could be early next year by the time we get through the school’s response and a hearing), it will not adjudicate the most heavily covered academic scandal in recent memory by making the women’s basketball team take the fall.

But that’s not to say I have any inkling what they’ll do instead.

I can take an educated guess what they won’t do. To the disappointment of Tar Heels rivals, esteemed basketball coach Roy Williams seems in no danger of a Jim Boeheim-like suspension. He’s mentioned just once in the notice, and then only in reference to an interview transcript. There’s no indication the NCAA believes he did anything wrong.

While not impossible, it also seems unlikely UNC’s 2005 and ’09 national championship banners will come down. Again, that would seem plausible if the NCAA determined certain members of those teams were ineligible, but if so, there’s no mention of them in the notice.

Whatever penalties come down will depend on how creative, and how Draconian, the committee chooses to be.

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It could levy a heavy fine, like it did Penn State a few years back, though that particular sanction came with an underlying cause of donating that $60 million to organizations working to prevent sexual abuse. There’s no obvious equivalent here.

It could impose massive scholarship reductions, a common tool in the committee arsenal, but given the vaguely stated scope of the extra benefits allegations, they’d likely need to cut across all the athletic departments’ sports. That is, unless the committee hones in on the aforementioned section that says the at-risk athletes came “primarily” in football and men’s and women’s basketball.

And if the committee does narrow its emphasis to those three sports, then it could theoretically impose postseason bans just on those three.

And now, having said all that, allow me to pull a complete cop-out and concede that all of it could be wildly off base.

End of day, the committee can basically do whatever it wants. Unlike the real-world justice system, they’re not bound to case precedent or sentencing guidelines. In 2011, I was among many media members who participated in an NCAA mock enforcement seminar where we played out a fake infractions case. When it came time to hand out the penalties they basically told us, "Knock yourself out." (And boy, did we ever hammer Fake U.)

Obviously, the committee must adhere to the facts of the case, but it will certainly be mindful of the message being sent. The NCAA constantly swears up and down that academics are the central core of its mission. For nearly two decades, North Carolina made an absolute mockery of academics, from which Tar Heels athletics’ teams indisputably gained a competitive advantage.

That aforementioned mission, already under attack on so many fronts, will never be taken seriously if the committee doesn’t treat UNC’s brazen academic malfeasance with a penalty befitting the crime.

What that punishment will be, though, I have no earthly idea. 

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.