Hairston legal issues hardly UNC's biggest

Ugly fallout from an ongoing academic scandal isn't the only bit of North Carolina news worth discussing on this fine summer Monday. The more recent and high-profile mess in Chapel Hill -- the early June arrest of star guard P.J. Hairston with two men, marijuana and a 9 mm handgun outside a GMC Yukon originally rented by a convicted felon -- took a rather major turn this past weekend, too.

As initially reported by Scout.com's Inside Carolina and confirmed by the Durham, N.C., court clerk to ESPN.com, all charges against Hairston stemming from the June 5 arrest have been dropped. Hairston faced charges of misdemeanor marijuana possession and driving without a license. According to the clerk, Hairston completed a drug assessment and provided his current driver's license to the court, after which the state decided to stop pursuing charges.

There are some tricky legal questions left over here. The first is the issue of the handgun, which police have said was found outside the vehicle at the traffic checkpoint. None of the three men in the vehicle that day (Hairston, Carlos Sanford and Miykael Faulcon) have been charged for having the handgun, reasons for which are just as uncertain as whose gun it was in the first place.* It is also not unfair to ask whether the state would have been as deferential in dropping charges were Hairston not a Tar Heels star. When you spend the morning trying to mentally navigate whether a faculty report on widespread academic scandal was changed at the last minute to elide NCAA interest, you begin to see conspiracy -- or, at best, a wink-nudge-Go-Heels -- around every corner.

But here's the real problem for UNC: Hairston's legal woes were never the main concern.

What we wrote in this space last week, when Roy Williams released a statement on Hairston's status, remains true: The biggest concern for North Carolina was not the actual legal incident itself, but the connections to Haydn "Fats" Thomas, the aforementioned convicted felon whose name and address popped in Hertz rental receipts obtained by USA Today in July. Thomas rented the GMC Yukon, but that's not all. On May 13, Hairston was arrested while driving a Chevrolet Camaro rented by Catinia Farrington, whose last known address (and the one used for the rental) matched Thomas' Durham residence on the transaction report.

Thomas has denied knowing Hairston, and insists he is neither tied to an agent nor a UNC booster, but the veracity of those claims as the NCAA will see them remains unclear. Hairston is due in court Aug. 2 to deal with the May speeding citation, and the car he was driving at the time cost Farrington and Thomas a combined total of $5,717.47 during two separate rental periods lasting from March 25 through April 15 and April 25 through June 17, as first reported by USA Today. At the time, when reached for comment, the NCAA said it did not discuss "potential investigations." It is thus unclear whether the NCAA is already actively investigating the situation. Given enforcement precedent, it would be shocking if that were not the case.

In other words, Hairston has been stopped twice on the road in recent months, and both times he was driving new model vehicles rented by someone else. The NCAA will be keen to find out exactly how that coincidence came to be, and what, if any, improper benefits may be involved.

That is the real concern for North Carolina. If charges against Hairston had not been dropped, and the Tar Heels' leading scorer faced a summer and fall full of court dates, it would have been embarrassing to Williams and his program. But a decision to either suspend Hairston or dismiss him from the team -- "serious consequences" already under consideration, as Williams has said -- could have essentially nipped those woes in the bud. The optics would have been unfortunate, but hardly uncommon, and wouldn't have lasted much longer than Williams had the stomach for.

Forget that. Charges or no charges, those cars were still rented to Thomas' address, and that's what will earn the NCAA's attention. For an athletics program already mired in three years of football mess and widespread suspicion over its role in academic scandal, the idea of an NCAA investigation into potential improper benefits provided to its star player by a well-known local felon is the real nightmare. That process would be long and arduous and unforgiving, and carries the possibility -- however remote -- of serious penalties against one of the college game's marquee programs.

Inside the strange NCAA violations enforcement bizarro bubble, whether Hairston was holding marijuana or not holding his driver's license or driving a vehicle with a firearm and ammunition onboard is almost completely ancillary -- a delivery system for something (car rentals) far less serious in the real world, but far more pertinent in the NCAA's purview. What matters is where the cars came from in the first place and why. That question remains as threatening as ever.

*(Update: The lack of a handgun-related charge almost certainly stems from North Carolina state law, where it is not illegal to carry a handgun, even without an ownership permit, provided the gun is not legally "concealed." For more information, see pages 6 and 7 of this PDF, which includes a handy explanation of the law as it governs the transportation of handguns, written by state Attorney General Roy Cooper. Thanks to less-than-polite but nonetheless helpful Twitter follower UNCDubb for the heads up.)