Editorial: NCAA wrong on North Carolina

The NCAA’s failure to act on an academic scandal shows its lack of control over its member institutions

The late Jerry Tarkanian, who feuded with the NCAA for much of his 30-plus years as a college basketball coach, liked to say “The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky they’re going to give Cleveland State another year of probation.”

Sometimes Tarkanian would sub UCLA for Kentucky and Cal State-Northridge for Cleveland State, but his point was the same — the governing body of college athletics was quick to investigate and punish little known schools but always hesitated when it came to its highest profile programs, especially the so-called basketball blue bloods Kentucky, UCLA, Duke, Kansas, Indiana and of course, North Carolina.

Imagine what Tarkanian would have made of the NCAA’s ruling late last week that North Carolina, the defending NCAA basketball tournament champion, will face no punishment for an academic scandal in which hundreds of athletes over the course of more than 10 years maintained their eligibility by earning phony grades in phony courses.

It wasn’t as if the NCAA lacked evidence of wrongdoing. Multiple investigations found that dating back to at least 1997, hundreds of fraudulent classes were offered in North Carolina’s African and Afro-American Studies Department and, while students who were not athletes also benefitted, a disproportionate number of athletes were steered through the bogus classes.

Witnesses supported the claims. Rashaad McCants, who played for UNC’s 2005 national championship basketball team, said he took phony classes and that much of his work was done by tutors. Tutor Mary Willingham said most of the athletes were not equipped for college and that in addition to being steered to take phony courses, were also given access to a database of papers.

If ever there was a case that demonstrated a lack of institutional control, surely this was it. Yet the NCAA, in perhaps its most twisted logic ever, concluded the athletes derived no special benefits because the phony courses and phony grades were open to non-athletes as well as athletes.

What a bunch of hooey.

College basketball is embroiled in an FBI investigation into corruption and bribery. Ten individuals already have been arrested including four assistant coaches accused of taking bribes to steer players to agents and financial advisers, and shoe company executives accused of paying players to sign with specific universities. Where that investigation ends — and how many programs will be affected — is anybody’s guess.

The North Carolina case was a chance for the NCAA to show, amid the growing corruption scandal, it could assert some semblance of control over its member institutions and at least try to emphasize the “student” in “student athletes.” Instead, the NCAA offered a collective “meh.”

In September, a couple weeks before the UNC announcement, the NCAA announced it was placing the University of the Pacific basketball program on two years’ probation for failing to properly monitor distance learning courses for its players and taking a scholarship away from the University of South Florida basketball program because an assistant coach improperly helped prospects get tutoring sessions to become eligible.

Tarkanian must be spinning in his grave.