On Friday, the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions said it could not conclude there were any NCAA violations by North Carolina in a nearly four-year case involving alleged sham courses in the school's Department of African and Afro-American Studies.
"While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called 'paper courses' offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes," said Greg Sankey, the committee's chief hearing officer and commissioner of the SEC. "The panel is troubled by the university's shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus and the credibility of the Cadwalader report, which it distanced itself from after initially supporting the findings. However, NCAA policy is clear. The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership."
Translation: UNC, the school, allowed students to secure grades in courses that required minimal effort, but everyone on campus had access to those courses, not just athletes.
Still, Sankey was not pleased with the outcome.
"What happened was troubling," he said.
What does all of this mean?
What was at stake in this case?
The committee on infractions could have penalized North Carolina by taking scholarships, suspending coaches and banning its programs from competing in the postseason, as it had with other athletic departments accused of severe academic violations. But the greatest threat to UNC, it seemed, were the potential losses of national championship banners from 2005 and 2009, since players from both teams might have been enrolled in courses the NCAA claimed offered extra benefits to student-athletes.
Wasn't this an academic fraud case?
Not at the end. Academic fraud was a consideration when the NCAA initially reopened its investigation of North Carolina in 2014, two years after it had penalized North Carolina football in a case involving extra benefits, agents and under-the-table payments. But Friday's ruling centered on one question: Did North Carolina create an environment, involving academic advisers and African and Afro-American Studies Department staffers, to give student-athletes -- and only student-athletes -- impermissible assistance? This was an impermissible benefits case, according to NCAA bylaws.
What were the major allegations against North Carolina?
Jan Boxill, an academic adviser for the women's basketball team, was accused of offering assistance to players that violated NCAA bylaws. Julius Nyang'oro, former chair of the AFAM department, and AFAM staffer Deborah Crowder were accused of violating the "principles of ethical conduct and extra-benefit legislation" by working with the athletic department to give student-athletes grades they didn't deserve. The NCAA essentially accused North Carolina of facilitating, supporting, creating and using the African and Afro-American Studies Department as a keep-our-athletes-eligible factory. Both Crowder and Nyang'oro were also charged with failing to cooperate with the NCAA investigation. The school was charged with lack of institutional control and failure to monitor the alleged malfeasance within the athletic department.
That's five Level I violations in all.
How did UNC escape major penalties?
The Kenneth Wainstein report (the Cadwalader report referenced in Sankey's initial statement) in 2014 concluded that North Carolina student-athletes represented nearly half of the 3,000 enrollees in "bogus" courses in the African and Afro-American Studies Department over a nine-year stretch. In its letter to North Carolina in July, before the school's committee on infractions hearing, the NCAA's enforcement staff said, "This case is not about so-called fake classes or easy courses. ... The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA's business. When a member institution allows an academic department to provide benefits to student-athletes that are materially different from the general student body, it is the NCAA's business."
North Carolina has argued that characterization from the beginning.
NCAA bylaw 14.4.1 states: "To be eligible to represent an institution in intercollegiate athletics competition, a student-athlete shall maintain progress toward a baccalaureate or equivalent degree at that institution as determined by the regulations of that institution subject to controlling legislation of the conference(s) or similar association of which the institution is a member and applicable NCAA legislation."
How is the specific NCAA bylaw related to what happened Friday?
The NCAA can't tell schools a course is too easy. North Carolina argued the NCAA was making that claim in its assessment of the school's potential violations. On a conference call with reporters after the findings were released Friday, Sankey said UNC's power to establish its own academic policies influenced the committee on infractions' decision.
"The public narrative for the last six years, popularized by media accounts, is that the Department of Athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (the 'University') took advantage of 'fake classes' in the Department of African and African-American Studies (the 'Department') to keep student-athletes eligible," North Carolina said in May in its response to the third notice of allegations submitted by the NCAA. "That narrative is wrong and contradicted by the facts in the record." The committee on infractions agreed with the school.
"While student-athletes likely benefited from the courses, so did the general student body," said Sankey in the committee's announcement Friday. "Additionally, the record did not establish that the university created and offered the courses as part of a systemic effort to benefit only student-athletes."
So is anyone in trouble?
Not serious trouble.
The committee on infractions concluded that Boxill, who was also a professor in the school's philosophy department, had offered a "consistent level of assistance to all students." Crowder was cited for failing to cooperate until three years into the investigation but she was not penalized.
Nyang'oro, the former African and Afro-American Studies Department chair, was hit with a five-year show-cause penalty. What does that mean? Any school that hires him has to show "why he should not have restrictions on athletically related activity." The latter would matter more if Nyang'oro were a coach seeking another job.
North Carolina avoided the lack of institutional control and failure to monitor charges, too.
So it's all over, right?
For the school, yes. Had the committee penalized North Carolina, the school would have taken its case to the infractions appeals committee (IAC). The Tar Heels would have had 15 days to file a notice of appeals with the IAC. That's not necessary in this case, though. Nyang'oro can still appeal his show-cause penalty through the IAC if he wants.
What does all of this mean for the NCAA?
Last month, the FBI announced the arrests of four Division I assistant coaches in a federal bribery investigation. The FBI also declared "we have your playbook" and promised additional culprits would be identified.
The ongoing investigation is arguably the most severe development in college basketball history. In response, the NCAA has created a Commission on College Basketball to reform and cleanse the sport. Many question whether that group, led by Condoleezza Rice, has the power to change the game. All agree the NCAA maintains the power to penalize schools and tarnish legacies with postseason bans, suspensions, banner removals and scholarship reductions.
After nearly four years of an intense and combative back-and-forth with North Carolina -- the school had repeatedly challenged the NCAA's jurisdiction throughout the investigation -- the committee on infractions cleared the Tar Heels. That's a devastating development for the NCAA, which was already facing questions and concerns about its authority, necessity and future in Division I athletics after the FBI's investigation.
The NCAA invested substantial resources in the North Carolina case.
There is little argument that the North Carolina classes weren't exactly Harvard engineering courses. But the NCAA can't do anything to stop UNC or any other school from enrolling student-athletes into those classes if they're also offered to the general student body.
That's what the ruling means.