The NCAA is expected to complete its investigation into claims of long-running academic fraud at North Carolina within the next few weeks, and given the size and scope of what’s alleged, major sanctions are a distinct possibility. But Roy Williams isn’t sweating it. He believes the basketball program will get off scot-free. And it should.
The scandal largely concerns the university’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies, which is accused of offering sham independent-study “paper classes.” Athletes made up a disproportionate number of the students in these classes, with players from the football, and men’s and women’s basketball teams enrolling in large numbers. The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations says players were “steered” to those classes by advisors in the athletics department, and that it was common for players to receive high grades regardless of the quality of their work.
As the Tar Heels have made it all the way to tonight’s national championship game, Williams is being asked about the scandal more and more. In an interview with ESPN yesterday, Williams bemoaned its drag on recruiting, but dismissed any fear of actual punishment.
“I don’t think we’re going to get hit in any way at all. Hard to penalize somebody when you have no allegations against them.”
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(The 2014 Notice of Allegations does not specifically accuse men’s basketball of anything, though the program repeatedly appears as one that sent a large number of players through the AFAM department, with 167 paper class enrollments since Williams took over in 2003. Former player Rashad McCants has said Williams was “100 percent” aware of the paper class system; whistleblower Mary Willingham claimed Williams told her in a conversation that her job was to keep his players eligible. As of the 2014 Notice of Allegations, neither accusation was corroborated.)
If we assume that the bulk of the allegations against UNC are true—applying the criterion of embarrassment, it seems safe to do so—then congratulations to Tar Heel athletics for gaming an eminently gamable system in a way that played a partial but significant role in building a winning program. To the NCAA, this is a scandal, but to North Carolina and the athletes who took part, this was very obviously the right thing to do, a way of meeting scam requirements with scam action.
One of the biggest possible selling points when trying to recruit a basketball player is the promise that he’ll be able to play basketball, and one of the keys to that is keeping him eligible. Eligibility, above all, was the entire purpose of the AFAM scam: keep those players on the court, keep that athletic revenue flowing in, keep attracting those top recruits whose job is to play sports, without the fear that academics will get in the way. This makes sense. For athletes who want a college education, a scholarship is a perk; for those who don’t, it’s an albatross in lieu of a fair wage.
By now, reasonable people see the NCAA’s insistence on the “college” side of college as a prerequisite for playing revenue sports as a mean-spirited scam—one bigger and more institutionalized than anything UNC is accused of doing. Academic fraud, in this case, is just what you call not keeping up appearances to the satisfaction of the people profiting off the scam.
The NCAA may well come down hard on North Carolina here, because that’s its role in this comic opera. UNC was playing their role to a T—the system as it is incentivizes exactly this behavior—until they went a little too far and made the “student-athlete” concept look the charade it is. In practice, the cheaters aren’t the programs that commit academic fraud. (Every major program does it to an extent, but one which keeps them from getting caught, which is what the NCAA prefers.) The cheaters are the programs that don’t even bother with the pretense that higher education is anything other than a cartel-imposed hoop to jump through.
Fuck the NCAA, and fuck anyone else who insists on forcing college upon kids who don’t want it just so their own paychecks can be bigger by dint of not paying the people who actually bring in the money. If UNC committed academic fraud, it was in the service of the reasonable, even noble, cause of letting athletes who wanted to do so focus on athletics. It’s merely an accident of history that college is in any way connected to amateur sports, and it’s time to start applauding the big-time programs that have found ways to take the academics out of college.