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NCAA Athletics: North Carolina Academics Dreadnought Runs Aground

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Ol' Roy could use a little divine assistance right about now.
Ol' Roy could use a little divine assistance right about now.

Some called North Carolina a "new Ivy," as in Ivy League. Not anymore.

It would be easy for me to engage in schadenfreude over North Carolina's academic scandal, which has now reached train-wreck proportions with the recent exposition of what appears to be the academic transcript of former Tar Heel star Julius Peppers on a UNC-Chapel Hill web server which was subsequently linked on a rival message board. This transcript suggests academic fraud which appears to span over a decade, and as Wild Weasel wrote yesterday in this FanPost, has created a major conundrum for UNC athletics:

Remember during the Penn State penalty announcement how it was opined here and other places that the NCAA was setting a precedent that might be difficult to follow, that Mark Emmert and Executive Committee were loosing the genie, and that Pandora's box was now open? Well all those appear to be true as pressure mounts on the school in Chapel Hill and the NCAA to take action in the alleged academic fraud case. The Charlotte Observer has led the mining of information and their most recent efforts led to the apparent and unintentional posting of the transcript of former Tarheel footballer Julius Peppers and the lack of effort of the University in investigating allegations.

Make no mistake, folks, this is serious stuff, if true. Already, some in the media are demanding action, and not just an investigation -- they are practically daring the NCAA to go off the reservation again, violate their bylaws and ethical principles in the name of "integrity," and do something deservedly horrible to North Carolina. All that is lacking, and doubt we'll lack it for long, is a demand for an "independent audit" of UNC's academics as it relates to athletes, so the NCAA can use that, or some other investigative report, to rain down destruction on the Tar Heel athletics program.

Some of you might think that I am suggesting the NCAA look the other way in this matter, but I'm not. The problem is, they have created a terrible precedent in the Penn St. matter that is now coming home to roost. It left as an ugly crow that the NCAA promptly disowned as the bastard spawn of an unprecedented situation. It returns as a Garuda-bird of vengeance, carrying the once-proud Tar Heel athletics program, a former flagship of the NCAA's student-athlete/university model, in its claws.

If we assume the worst (which, I might add, is a very long way from being proven even by a preponderance of evidence standard), what we have here is a complete abdication by a major public university of every principle the NCAA holds dear vis-a-vis the student-athlete model. It suggests that a school tailored an educationally worthless (or at least highly suspect) series of classes, even an entire major course of study, not to educate the student-athlete, but to ensure that they remained academically eligible.

Unlike the Penn St. matter, this debacle, if proven, would fall squarely into the most fundamental purposes of the NCAA bylaws. There is no need to stretch and distort them to make them somehow apply to a situation covered by numerous laws and societal rules in order to pile on punishment. Situations like what is alleged at North Carolina are exactly what the NCAA Bylaws were designed to address.

RELATED: Hypocrites of the year: The NCAA

Most of this illicit activity, which may have affected numerous high-profile North Carolina basketball teams, happened outside the scope of the NCAA's statute of limitations, which has a four-year term. However, there are exceptions to this statute which arguably would apply in this case. Here is the NCAA SoL in its entirety from the 2012 NCAA Bylaws:

32.6.3 Statute of Limitations.

Allegations included in a notice of allegations shall be limited to possible violations occurring not earlier than four years before the date the notice of inquiry is forwarded to the institution or the date the institution notifies (or, if earlier, should have notified) the enforcement staff of its inquiries into the matter. However, the following shall not be subject to the four-year limitation: (Revised: 10/12/94, 4/24/03)

(a) Allegations involving violations affecting the eligibility of a current student-athlete;
(b) Allegations in a case in which information is developed to indicate a pattern of willful violations on the part of the institution or individual involved, which began before but continued into the four-year period; and
(c) Allegations that indicate a blatant disregard for the Association’s fundamental recruiting, extra-benefit, academic or ethical-conduct regulations or that involve an effort to conceal the occurrence of the violation. In such cases, the enforcement staff shall have a one-year period after the date information concerning the matter becomes available to the NCAA to investigate and submit to the institution a notice of allegations concerning the matter.

In order to take action against UNC's teams past approximately 2007 (I'm not totally sure of the dates), the NCAA will have to assert look-back authority under b) or c), both of which seem plausibly applicable to this situation. The problem is, there is considerable room for maneuvering, as we discovered in the Myron Pigge story with Duke University.

The big question right now among media circles is, "Is the NCAA even interested?" There is evidence that they may not be, having just hit UNC's football program with sanctions, they seem to interested observers to be less than enamored of the idea of opening another investigation in Chapel Hill. Conspiracy theorists will want to substitute "North Carolina" for "Kentucky" in Jerry Tarkanian's famous (or infamous) quote, "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it's going to give Cleveland State two more years' probation."

There appears to be a lot of stuff remaining to be dragged into the open, if not into the full light of day. If an NCAA probe is being contemplated, it will probably be postponed due to the fact of the alleged Peppers' transcript's release. The release of information like that is forbidden by federal and state law, and it has already prompted an investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation under state fraud statutes, and the federal government many have to get involved:

It is bad enough that this could be a violation of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which is designed to keep student information, such as academic transcripts, confidential.

Even if the feds don't decide to investigate, the NCAA will undoubtedly wait until all existing investigations are complete before initiating their own probe. If they want precedent for that, they have to look no further than the Myron Pigge matter I mentioned before, which took nine years before the NCAA even discussed it's conclusions.

Here's what North Carolina officials say about the possible dissemination of Peppers' transcript:

Over the previous several weeks, UNC officials had repeatedly said the test transcript was just that, a mock up put together to test a university computer program that helps a student learn what other courses are needed to obtain a degree. But they declined to check academic records to back up their claims.

Read more here:

The strange way in which the transcript appeared suggests to me that some of the more academically-minded in the staff at North Carolina want to get this matter investigated, and leaked this document in order to get the ball rolling. Their reasoning could be that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the best way to get past all this and back on track is to get it into the light.

The leadership of UNC is clearly stonewalling, and hoping against hope that this problem will just die down after the season begins. I don't think that will happen, and even though an NCAA investigation is not necessarily inevitable, it seems that sooner or later, with all the media pressure, the NCAA will have to do something. The question is, what?

Now that "Pandora's box," as many have called it, is open, will the NCAA use the Penn St. excuse of "unprecedented" to open a can of whoop-ass on North Carolina? Academic fraud at the level some suspect UNC of engaging in is certainly unprecedented at any NCAA institution. It is possible that an entire fraudulent curriculum designed specifically to keep athletes eligible (admittedly the very worst-case scenario) is the ultimate outcome here. Unprecedented? You betcha.

Will the NCAA, as they did in the Penn St. matter, just use the final report of state and/or federal agencies, assuming both provide them, to pronounce UNC guilty and issue their punishment? If so, at least it would have the imprimatur of genuine credibility -- they used a far less thorough and reliable report to unleash the Kraken on the Nittany Lions, all the while bemoaning the "football culture" and ignoring the very real likelihood that the Freeh Report overemphasized that particular point to the detriment of its conclusions. The NCAA have already proven they don't care about due process. "Correct" outcomes that assuage the media and public -- essentially, mob justice -- are all that is required to meet their responsibilities based on the Penn St. sanctions.

Will the mob now wreak it's vengeance on the Tar Heel basketball program? Roy Williams is running scared, and one could hardly blame him:

"I am bothered by it, I am worried about it, (I am) a little discouraged about it, to say the least, but the bottom line is there's nothing I can do about it," Williams told WFNZ. "I have some very strong opinions, but as soon as I make some strong opinions, everybody decides to take their bow and arrow, their shotgun, machine gun, the bazooka and everything out. For me, I'm going to wait and see what happens at the end and let those people that are supposed to be taking care of it take care of it. It's not something I'm enjoying, I can tell you that."

Williams feels he'll be pilloried by the press for even stating an opinion in the matter, and I expect he's 100% right about that. Unfortunately, there are too many people just dying to pick the meat from the bones of Williams and North Carolina. Just consider what this UK student did, as reported by Sam Henson at Everything Kentucky. What that fan did is highly unethical at best, but it just shows the length that some are willing to go to if they think a problem at a rival university is being ignored.

In the end, something will have to be done about the North Carolina matter -- it simply looks too bad not to be dragged out into the open, and the press, understandably and rightly, is demanding some answers. The problem is, will self-righteousness, hypocrisy and mob justice rise up to destroy another excellent academic institution where the sports junkies ruled the day? If so, should UK fans be worried about this trend?

Because, trust me, we have a sports addiction problem here, too.