North Carolina has been among Division I's most successful women's basketball programs for nearly the last quarter-century under coach Sylvia Hatchell. But the Tar Heels are in the midst of a crisis that may have long-lasting consequences.
The news Tuesday that junior-to-be guard Allisha Gray, the team's leading scorer this past season, has been granted a release to transfer is the latest blow to the program. Technically, she's not yet officially transferring, but that seems inevitable. And you have to wonder what's next.
Earlier this month, North Carolina's athletic department was charged by the NCAA with five violations related to the discredited African and Afro-American Studies department. Sometime in the next year, it seems likely North Carolina -- the athletic department as a whole and specific sports -- will be punished by the NCAA, maybe severely, although with the NCAA you can never predict.
The academic scandal that first became publicly known involving the North Carolina football program in 2010 has since been revealed to date back two decades and involve athletes from several programs, including women's basketball.
There is an enormous amount to unpack when discussing all that's been revealed over the past five years at North Carolina. Willful blindness or chosen naivety, whatever term you prefer, seemed rampant.
As for women's basketball, to say the least, the program that Hatchell has presided over since 1986 is sailing in rough waters that may get worse before they get better.
There have been several high-profile transfers this spring and summer in women's basketball. For a variety of reasons, that's something we should just expect to see every year. For one thing, social media has greatly facilitated and complicated recruits' comparison shopping. And it's also then contributed to their buyer's remorse after they've spent time at a school and it isn't the experience they expected.
But Gray's apparent intent to transfer stands out because it's part of the problematic big picture at North Carolina.
In mid-May, another North Carolina player who -- like Gray -- just finished her sophomore season, opted to transfer. That was Jessica Washington, who said she was leaving to pursue more playing time.
Near the end of May, former Tar Heel star Ivory Latta, who currently plays for the WNBA's Washington Mystics, said she was leaving the North Carolina staff after two years as an assistant. The reason given by Latta and the school was that she wanted to return to playing overseas during the winter months.
Tuesday, a representative for Gray said she did not want to discuss the reasons she is considering a transfer. So whether it's related to the school's academic issues and potential NCAA censure is a matter of speculation. But if I'm speculating, I'd guess it's definitely related.
Last week, an accreditation agency put North Carolina on probation. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges didn't go the further step of blocking the university from receiving federal funds, which would have been monumental. But the probation was another clarion call about the severity of what's happened at North Carolina.
Last October, an independent investigator hired by the school, Kenneth Wainstein, released a report that detailed the extent to which the "AFAM" program was a grotesque academic charade -- a lot of essentially fake classes, requiring little work that was laxly (if at all) graded -- but also the degree to which employees of the athletic department took advantage of it.
Before the Wainstein report, the school had done previous reports that sold the narrative that this was an academic scandal, not an athletic one. In fact, it was both. Approximately 3,100 students took "AFAM" classes, and about half of them were athletes.
The former chair of the "AFAM" department, Julius Nyang'oro, who resigned in 2011, and administrative assistant Deborah Crowder, who retired in 2009, have borne most of the blame. The Wainstein report also heavily implicated Jan Boxill, a former academic counselor for the women's basketball program. Boxill, who was also director of the school's Parr Center for Ethics, subsequently was fired, contested that, and then resigned.
Hatchell has never tried to hide her friendship with and support for Boxill. But at the same time, Hatchell has said she had no idea what was going on with "AFAM." Wainstein's report said that Hatchell -- like men's basketball coach Roy Williams -- believed the courses were legitimate.
But coaches such as Hatchell and Williams should have known the reality. Where does the buck stop when it comes to the education of student-athletes? At North Carolina, there's been a mindset that the buck doesn't even pause, let alone stop, at the doors of the highest-ranking people in the athletic department. Whether the NCAA will repudiate that remains to be seen.
More bad news on the way?
Oh, and don't forget this, too: There also is the lawsuit filed in January against both North Carolina and the NCAA, for which former North Carolina women's basketball player Rashanda McCants is a plaintiff along with former football player Devon Ramsey.
The lawsuit seeks damages for former UNC student-athletes for breach of contract in failing to provide "academically sound classes with legitimate educational instruction." As you could imagine, this could take years to wend its way through the court system.
Most of the national media attention involving this academic scandal has been on men's basketball and football, which is to be expected. But as we've established, women's basketball is heavily involved. So it's fair to say there's a "Who leaves next?" watch on for the program.
Forward Stephanie Mavunga is the last remaining member of what was UNC's mega-star freshman class in 2013-14. Diamond DeShields was the first to go, departing in the spring of 2014 after a season that ended in an NCAA Elite Eight loss. She transferred to Tennessee without giving a specific reason for leaving North Carolina, other than a variation of the standard "it wasn't the right fit."
Hatchell spent the 2013-14 season battling leukemia, then returned to the bench last season, when North Carolina nearly advanced to the Elite Eight again. The Tar Heels lost in the final seconds of their regional semifinal with South Carolina.
North Carolina has one NCAA title, won in 1994, and two additional appearances in the Women's Final Four. Hatchell is in the Naismith Hall of Fame and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. Former Tar Heels such as Latta, Camille Little and Erlana Larkins have made an impact in the WNBA.
Hatchell's legacy, to a degree, is already set. But after 29 seasons at North Carolina, Hatchell is now facing possible NCAA penalities, the potential of more players leaving, and the negative impact all of this may have on recruiting.
Hatchell declined my recent interview request, as did Latta and McCants. Larkins, who currently plays with the Indiana Fever, did speak to me, and defended her former coach and North Carolina. There's been the expected closing of the ranks among many of the program's alums, some of whom are angry at McCants for her involvement in the lawsuit.
I've written many positive stories about Hatchell and her program over the years. I admire her unquestioned work ethic, her commitment to the sport, and how resolutely she faced a life-threatening illness that took her away from her team. I've talked to a number of players who consider her like a second mother, and rave about how they could call on her at any time, even long after their careers are over.
But as uncomfortable and complicated as it is to sort through the wreckage already at North Carolina and speculate on what may still be coming, it's also very necessary.