Let's be clear up front: North Carolina's response to the NCAA's notice of allegations is a little arrogant, a little elitist and, well, a lot right.
The school is essentially saying that, yes, the courses in the African-American Studies department were a sham. And yes, a disproportionate number of athletes took those sham courses. But, the school counters, the NCAA shouldn't be able to charge the school with lack of institutional control or failure to monitor for two reasons:
It's not the NCAA's business
Sitting next to the scores of men's and women's basketball players and football players were everyday students.
To the casual reader it is downright laughable. What else does the NCAA have to do other than to maintain academic integrity among its athletes? And since when is the retort, "well everyone else was doing it, too" a good defense?
As ridiculous as the argument sounds, they've got a point.
In what is arguably the biggest case, in both scope and the brand name of the school being investigated, to fall on its enforcement staff's desk in decades, the NCAA may very well have a difficult time landing its two most serious charges. For that, it has no one to blame but itself and a thick rulebook that intentionally glosses over academic integrity.
"The NCAA membership worked long and hard studying and trying to decide what should and shouldn't be a bylaw, what is and is not within the manual," athletic director Bubba Cunningham said. "The quality of the class, we understand and have said for some time didn't meet our normal standards, but that doesn't mean it's a violation of a bylaw."
There are two issues at play here.
First up: What exactly is the NCAA's job? From the organization's own mission statement:
"Our purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount."
The key words are to govern competition. Nowhere does it say that the NCAA has a say so in the governance of or determining the merits of an institution's academic courses. In fact, the same organization that somehow has deemed itself worthy to determine if thousands of high schools meet their standards for initial eligibility is purposefully standoffish when it comes to telling colleges and universities what is and is not up to snuff.
Once an athlete is enrolled in school, the NCAA monitors whether he or she is making the proper progress toward graduation — i.e., taking enough, and passing enough, courses; making sure that student athletes are graduating at a proper rate. If not, the NCAA penalizes schools.
But it does not — nor does it want — to police whether the courses athletes are taking are worth a fig. It's the NCAA's version of a separation of church and state.
We've got sports; you get class.
The organization, in fact, hasn't created a by-law regarding academic integrity since 1983.
"For many, many years we have had presidents on the council and faculty athletic representatives on the council and each and every time when they've looked at what the role of the NCAA is relative to academics they stay out of it," Cunningham said. "They don't want the NCAA in the classroom. … We work with our accrediting agency for academic issues. The NCAA Is our athletic agency. They each have different jurisdictional responsibilities."
The second problem for the NCAA? The number of regular Joes and Janes who took the same courses as the athletes did. The NCAA tried to point to the paper classes as an impermissible benefit, a gift given to athletes to help them along because of their stature as big men and women on campus. Critics naturally and logically argue that if the academic support staff steered athletes to these courses they were, in fact, receiving an extra benefit.
But UNC is asking, if everyone on campus was given the same chance to take the courses, no matter how fraudulent they were, how can it be construed as a benefit given only to athletes?
The simple answer: It can't.
The NCAA knows it can't, which is why in April the organization announced new rules regarding academic misconduct. Schools now must adhere to strict academic integrity policies. A violation of those policies now will equate to an NCAA violation. Here's the kicker from the NCAA's own press release:
"Additionally the proposal recognizes schools can't predict every type of academic integrity issue that could occur. Therefore, some misconduct committed by staff members or boosters that doesn't violate a school's academic misconduct policies may still violate NCAA rules."
In other words, we'll know it when we see it.
Surely under those rules, North Carolina wouldn't have passed the smell test.
In adjudicating UNC's case, the rules are too little too late, enacted after the NCAA began its investigation.
Instead the school is allowed to make what, by all accounts, is a nervy, illogical and downright laughable defense.
And it just might work.