Sidelines with John Clay

NCAA ruling: North Carolina’s lawyers 1, college basketball fans 0

I get the outrage. Man, do I get it. I can hear it everywhere people care about college hoops: “Did you see the Friday morning news, that the NCAA let North Carolina get away with academic fraud — get away with it! — without a single sanction or penalty or loss of anything because, you know, it’s sainted North Carolina?”

Yes, the NCAA announced it “could not conclude that North Carolina violated NCAA academic rules” and that there would be no penalties or sanctions against the school’s athletics program.

All along, however, those not emotionally invested in the outcome agreed there was a tough fundamental question involved in this North Carolina case: Does the NCAA, in its bylaws, have jurisdiction to determine the worthiness of a class offered by a member school?

North Carolina’s lawyers, led by Rick Evrard, argued the NCAA did not. Eventually, after a long back-and-forth with the school, the NCAA was forced to agree.

So the NCAA’s final answer Friday had little to do with whether the particular classes offered by North Carolina were fraudulent. The NCAA’s decision concluded the classes were not set up specifically to benefit the student-athletes. Instead, they were used by both student- athletes and the general student body at the school. Thus they did not qualify as an “extra benefit” for the student-athletes, which is what most NCAA rules are all about.

As Raleigh News and Observer columnist Luke DeCock pointed out, the crux of the decision lies in this passage: “UNC’s decision to support the courses are legitimate combined with a stale and incomplete record that does not allow the panel to drill down to the course and the assignment level — even if the panel had wanted to second guess the courses — it cannot conclude academic fraud occurred.”

So North Carolina’s championship banners will still hang from the rafters of the Dean Smith Center.

To college basketball fans, this was an emotional case. To them, instead of the vaunted “North Carolina Way” of doing things, the school was accused of using fake classes to keep players eligible for more than a decade. Therefore, it had to be punished. The NCAA must show that no school was untouchable, etc. This was a test case. (And the NCAA failed miserably. Again.)

In reality, this was a legal case. North Carolina’s lawyers argued that the NCAA lacked the jurisdiction to rule in a school’s academic matters, unless the class was specifically to benefit only student-athletes.

In other words, the NCAA is not an academic body. It’s not an academic association of colleges or other such group. The NCAA cannot go to a school and determine the worthiness of an individual class or professor or curriculum. It can set general standards, such as a minimum grade-point average for eligibility (though many times that is determined by a conference), but it cannot tell a school what classes to offer or how easy or difficult those classes must be. That’s up to the individual institution.

Again from DeCock: “Because university presidents don’t want the NCAA mucking about in what they like to call ‘curriculum.’ And presidents run the NCAA.”

When hearing “academic fraud” we have a tendency to think of the Eric Manuel case at UK in the 1980s or the Derrick Rose case at Memphis in 2008. Both of those had to do with scores on entrance exams that were not certified by the testing body. In the case of Manuel, there was the allegation that UK had in some way helped Manuel achieve the test score needed for eligibility. There was no such allegation against Memphis in the Rose case, only that the school had played a student-athlete who was, it was later determined, ineligible.

Still, after three years of waiting and the widespread cynicism about the NCAA — with good reason — Friday’s ruling did not go over well with the general sports fan or media.

On the other side, there’s this from ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who we might add, is also an attorney:

“From the start, it was clear NCAA rules did not cover this matter. What a colossal waste of time and money when (the) NCAA knew it had no case.”

On this one, Jay was right.

When it comes down to it, North Carolina’s investment of $18 million in legal fees was money well spent. This was an argument about a fundamental issue. Its lawyers won that argument.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader