Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer 420d

North Carolina was spared, but it came at a cost

Men's College Basketball, North Carolina Tar Heels

At 3 p.m. ET Friday, on the grassy knoll that rises to greet the main entrance of the Dean Smith Center, a University of North Carolina employee carefully lined a series of balloon towers along the hillside. There were eight in all, columns of Carolina blue and white, topped with silver numbers signifying the seasons when the Tar Heels were the kings of college basketball, those eternal national title teams.

A silver-haired father and his college-student daughter stopped on the sidewalk and readied their phones to snap photos. They were two of the hundreds of fans already in line to attend the evening's main event, "Late Night with Roy," the first basketball practice of the season, highlighted by the unfurling of the team's newest NCAA championship banner, won in April.

"Those look awesome!" the man shouted, pointing to the decorations adorned with "05" and "09."

"Make sure you put those two where everyone can really see them. Today they've been saved!"

They have indeed. When most in Chapel Hill woke up Friday morning, they feared those balloons would have to be popped with pins and that the banners that came with them would be removed from the rafters of the storied building in the background.

Instead, at 10 a.m. ET, when the NCAA committee on infractions released its report, it stated that UNC's "paper class" issue -- spanning nearly two decades and involving more than 3,000 students (roughly half of whom were athletes) -- was, as the school's attorneys had argued, an academic problem. Not an athletic problem. The Heels had avoided all major penalties. Those balloons and banners and all the 2002-2011 memorabilia in the Carolina Basketball Museum down the sidewalk -- the years the NCAA investigation focused on -- had indeed been saved.

When that report was released, the front door of the Dean Dome was lined by a dozen or so fans waiting to enter. One woman stood and screamed, her voice echoing off the building's brown fa├žade: "We won! We won!"

They did, but at what cost?

There was the $18 million that the university spent in legal fees while mounting its defense. Clearly, that was money well-spent. In 2016 the revenue for UNC athletics was $95 million, with more than $23 million in ticket sales alone. So $18 million seems a reasonable amount for what is essentially a momentum tax, a fee paid to keep the business machine cranking.

One week ago, UNC announced a $4.25 billion capital campaign. Because of that announcement, the school asked the NCAA to delay its penalties release, originally scheduled for the same day. Many questioned that move. Why in the world would the school want an NCAA infractions bomb dropped on the same day that it held its biggest basketball party?

Now we know. It's because those well-paid lawyers had done their job and the people who paid them already knew it.

Then there was the cost of the jobs lost by previous administrators and employees who were forced to fall on the sword to take one for the Carolina Way, or had their lives turned inside out for daring to be whistleblowers. Most of the names of those pushed into the ditch on this seven-year road have long been forgotten.

There was also the cost of the university's academic integrity, which was laid on a sacrificial altar and gutted for the sake of saving hoops.

Sham classes were offered in the catalog of a university long referred to as "Public Ivy." Grades were rubber-stamped, secretaries graded papers and former coaches suddenly developed amnesia when asked about how-to PowerPoint presentations showing routes to boosting athlete eligibility. Former players confessed to being steered into no-show classes, and former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, himself a college professor, admitted that the UNC-commissioned investigation he headed in 2012 had failed to truly identify the problem. Then he denied deep athletic ties. But in 2015 he confessed in a book that it was an "extraordinary athletic scandal."

All the above was enough to place the nation's oldest public university, celebrating its 224th birthday on Thursday, on one year's probation by its accrediting commission, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Think of it as sort of an NCAA of academics, only with teeth. The association now reserves the right to revisit the UNC case -- a case that was sent its way by the NCAA, incredibly, per UNC's request. The boldest among a series of moves that ultimately set up Friday's winning checkmate.

Hey, came the argument from Chapel Hill, this isn't an athletic department issue. This is an academic issue!

On Friday morning, Greg Sankey, chair of the NCAA infractions committee, essentially repeated those words as he attempted to explain the lack of penalties. His tone sounded as if his teeth were handcuffed: "The panel is troubled by the university's shifting positions about whether academic fraud [occurred] on its campus. ... However, the 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 of that membership."

In other words, we don't have the rules to deal with the "student" half of student-athlete.

With all of that to chew on, any talk of "aren't you ashamed by this?" was met from the accused with the verbal equivalent of a shrug emoji. During UNC's media teleconference, athletic director Bubba Cunningham said, "Sometimes the behavior you're not proud of doesn't fit into a bylaw."

It does, however, fit into the Dean Smith Center. On Friday night, coach Roy Williams (who addressed the day's earlier news with a short, written statement) unrolled the 2017 banner to take its place alongside the flags from '05 and '09. There was no gloating in the Dean Dome on Friday night. Those in attendance focused intently on basketball and didn't spend much time thinking about the foundation of their collective relief.

It has long been tradition in Chapel Hill that "Late Night with Roy," and all its Midnight Madness predecessors, be treated like a national holiday. As blue-clad fan Eric McCall said from the courtside seat he'd camped out for, "Every fall, once that team comes running onto this floor for the first time, us Carolina fans start feeling normal again."

Now we wait and see what normal has become. Does the NCAA membership move to tighten up the gaps in those bylaws, making academic fraud a less slippery issue for the governing body to grab hold of? Or will those members take the road map UNC has handed them and, in the future, simply make sure to enroll enough rank-and-file students in paper classes to keep them off the NCAA books if busted?

No matter what the new normal is, will it ever truly feel normal again? That's the real cost of all this. We won't know exactly how big the final invoice will be for some time; perhaps it will take years. In the meantime, college basketball has much bigger issues to sort out. There was a time when the folks in Chapel Hill would have looked down their noses at the growing list of programs on the FBI's Most Wanted List and shaken their heads. Not anymore.

On Friday at the University of North Carolina, no one was declared innocent. They were told they were free to go. There's a difference. Deep down, they know it.

But those balloons sure do look nice.

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