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The Virginian - Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)
If you grew up rooting for Virginia, North Carolina State or anyone else in the ACC, you may have despised the University of North Carolina.
But go ahead and admit it: Even if you hated the Tar Heels outwardly, deep down inside, you also admired them.
Carolina did things the right way. The Tar Heels played hard, respected opponents and adhered to high academic standards.
Longtime basketball coach Dean Smith called it "The Carolina Way" in a book he wrote a few years before he passed away.
Of course, we now have much different outlook on the Tar Heels, thanks largely to Raleigh News & Observer reporter Dan Kane, who used the Freedom of Information Act and plain old, shoe leather journalism to shatter our illusions.
In 2011, the newspaper obtained a transcript of UNC football star Marvin Austin showing a B-plus grade in a senior level African studies class he took before his freshman year began. UNC officials were at a loss to explain how he got into a high-level course before his first football practice.
Reporters and investigators began digging, and the results were appalling.
From 1993 through 2011, about 3,100 UNC students — nearly half of whom were athletes — took African studies classes that proved to be bogus. Classes generally did not meet; homework was not assigned.
Most required little work — a simple term paper at the end of the semester often sufficed.
UNC hired attorney Kenneth Wainstein to investigate, and he found that about 40 percent of those term papers were at least in part plagiarized, yet were accorded an average grade of A- minus.
Many of the term papers were graded by Deborah Crowder, a former academic administrative assistant and an avid Tar Heels fan. She gave A and B grades, Wainstein found, regardless of the quality of the work. Never mind that she was not a faculty member and was not supposed to grade papers.
These "fake" courses helped athletes remain eligible, Wainstein wrote, including members of UNC's 2005 national championship basketball team.
The News & Observer later reported that five members of that team took a combined 52 fake courses. Rashad McCants, a starter on that team, has said (his claims are disputed by former teammates) that tutors wrote term papers for athletes.
Here's what an academic counselor told Wainstein about fake classes: Athletes "didn't go to class. They didn't have to take notes, have to stay awake. They didn't have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material."
We all know that big-time athletics and academics sometimes don't mesh, that not every player gifted with the ability to crush a ball carrier or bury a 3-pointer can thrive in the classroom. But universities are obligated to uphold minimum standards that give every eligible athlete a chance to graduate.
Allowing athletes to take fake classes to remain eligible essentially cheated them out of the chance to get a good education.
I'd feel some sympathy for UNC officials if they had earnestly tried to get to the bottom of all this. But instead of opening up, they lawyered up and stonewalled investigators. They blamed a false "media narrative" for forcing the NCAA to investigate and have distanced themselves from the Wainstein report
The school already has spent $18 million on the academic scandal, mostly in legal fees. It has not been money well-spent, either. Had Carolina officials fallen on their collective swords in 2011 and made an honest effort to atone, they likely would have gotten off with minimum NCAA sanctions.
Instead, I expect they'll get hammered by the NCAA sometime this fall.
Carolina is as defiant as ever as it heads into an NCAA hearing Aug. 16 in Nashville. Yes, there were academic problems, UNC has told the NCAA. But since these classes were also available to regular students, they didn't violate NCAA rules, so this is none of your business, they're arguing.
I loved the NCAA's response: "When a member institution allows an academic department to provide benefits to student athletes that are materially different from the general student body, it is the NCAA's business," officials wrote.
"When a member institution uses 'special arrangement' courses to keep a significant number of student-athletes eligible, it is the NCAA's business.
"When a member institution provides student-athletes an inside track to enroll in publicized courses where grades of A's and B's are the norm, it is the NCAA's business.
"When a member institution fails or refuses to take action after receiving actual notice of problems involving student-athletes, thereby allowing violations to compound and to continue for years, it is the NCAA's business."
Some sports personalities, including former Duke basketball star Jay Bilas, agree with Carolina that the NCAA has no jurisdiction here. Bilas is a smart guy, but if it isn't against the rules for athletes to remain eligible by taking fake courses, then college athletics are in more trouble than I thought.
The stakes here are enormous for the NCAA, which exists in part to make sure everyone plays by the same rules. It has struggled of late with its enforcement process.
It has been helpless to sanction Baylor for its sexual assault scandal, and sexual assault is a greater sin than academic fraud. During an earlier investigation into a football scandal at UNC, the NCAA refused to investigate the growing academic fraud even though by then, the issue had been vetted in the media. That was a critical failure.
That this investigation has dragged on for three long years also speaks to the dysfunction of the NCAA.
"I used to say that I hoped that it would be over with before I retired," Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams said earlier this year. "Now I'm saying I hope it's over with before I die."
Before you start feeling too sorry for Roy, remember that he described the allegations of wrongdoing as "junk."
Carolina won two national championships while basketball players were taking fake classes. The Tar Heels also won bowl games in football and ACC championships in other sports. Some or all of those championships could be forfeited.
I doubt things will go that far. But if the NCAA fails to levy tough penalties on the Tar Heels, it forfeits any credibility as a neutral arbiter of fair play.
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