Wiedmer: NCAA not yet done with UNC

Wiedmer: NCAA not yet done with UNC

July 1st, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

North Carolina's Rashad McCants cuts down part of the net during UNC's celebration following their 75-70 win over Illinois in the 2005 NCAA championship game in St. Louis.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

"If you want to find the truth, the truth is there in the transcripts."

Former North Carolina basketball star Rashad McCants uttered those 14 words to ESPN on June 11. He said them in response to UNC's rebuttal of his earlier charges of widespread academic fraud in the school's athletic department, including the winter that McCants helped Baby Blue U win the 2005 NCAA championship.

Until Monday, that was pretty much the last time anyone had addressed the subject nationally. After all, there was an NBA Finals to watch. And a World Cup. And a College World Series final between Vanderbilt and Virginia, a couple of academic schools that UNC always has enjoyed painting itself as the mirror image of.

But then came Monday afternoon and the NCAA announcement that it is reopening its investigation into academic misconduct at the Chapel Hill campus.

"The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was cited by the Division I Committee on Infractions in 2012 for violations in its athletics program, including academic misconduct," the NCAA said in its prepared statement.

"As with any case, the NCAA enforcement staff makes clear it will revisit the matter if additional information becomes available. After determining that additional people with information and others who were previously uncooperative might be willing to speak with the enforcement staff, the NCAA has reopened its investigation."

Whether McCants is one of those people is unclear. Beyond that, in the wake of the NCAA's current legal struggles regarding the future payment of student-athletes for their names, images and likenesses, a cautious soul might reasonably wonder if this is merely a ploy to distract the public from the association's courtroom struggles.

After all, UNC has faced many of these charges before. It previously reported in 2012 that it had found problems with 54 African-American Studies classes taught from the summer of 2007 to the summer of 2011. Those problems included grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time.

Of course, they also conveniently ignored any issues that may have been present in 2005, despite former professor Julius Nyang'oro also teaching AFAM courses that year. And that could be the problem in light of McCants' acusations.

Especially since the NCAA sanctioned UNC's football program only in 2012, delivering a postseason ban and scholarship losses after finding impermissible benefits and academic fraud under then-coach Butch Davis.

But now that UNC has hired former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein to conduct an independent investigation -- and the courts reportedly are considering granting Nyang'oro immunity from prosecution on felony criminal fraud in exchange for testimony -- the 2005 season could quickly be in play.

The Tar Heels spin machine argues otherwise, of course. Bradley Bethel, a UNC reading and writing specialist, recently wrote in a passionate blog post: "Nyang'oro's conducting lecture classes as independent studies and grading them with inappropriate lenience may have been academic misconduct on his part, but it was not necessarily academic fraud."

Parse to prevail, perhaps?

And that might become a viable defense. But there's also a far bigger issue here, one that's been around as long as academic leaders have known there's sizable money to be made through athletic success, however impure the method for that success.

A quick story: My late father spent much of his professional career working in public relations for a major corporation. In the early 1970s, a friend asked him to consider hiring a recent all-conference football player from a Top 10 program who had failed to stick in the NFL. Knowing the company had a prime entry-level position open, my father agreed to interview him.

Finding the young man both charming and witty, my dad told him that the position was his as long as he could pass the company's standardized test for employment. The former student-athlete failed miserably. Twice. Stunned, my father asked what had gone wrong. Did the kid freeze? Did he not test well?

"We never had to take tests," the young man replied, his eyes tearing up. "We could, but if we didn't want to they'd find someone to take it for you. Same thing with papers. Anything to keep us on the field."

Listen to McCants' story and not much has changed in more than 40 years. Research NCAA scandals from 25 years before that, and the same pattern of abuse applies.

Merely consider these words from Judge Saul Streit in 1952, when blasting the Kentucky basketball program for point shaving: "I found that intercollegiate basketball and football at Kentucky have become highly systematized, professionalized and commercialized enterprises. I found covert subsidization of players, ruthless exploitation of athletes, cribbing at examinations ... matriculation of unqualified students ..."

Sound familiar 62 years later?

But Kentucky long has been perceived as a basketball factory, determined to win at any cost. The North Carolina Way was supposed to be so much more ethical, its foundation built on academics, character and perspective.

Now those 14 words from McCants -- "If you want to find the truth, the truth is there in those transcripts" -- either can go a long way in setting the UNC athletic department free from future embarrassment or possibly force the NCAA to make the 2005 Tar Heels the first basketball team stripped of its crown.

So here we go. Or to slightly alter Jack Nicholson's climatic words from "A Few Good Men," can UNC hoops handle the truth? Did the African Studies program's existence, however grotesque and incomprehensible to the idealists, temporarily save UNC's 2005 championship season before the NCAA weighs erasing it from the record books close to a decade later?

Or will a different ending arrive, one saved by the quaint notion that academic misconduct is not academic fraud.

Either way, removing the tar of embarrassment from these Heels could take some time.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com