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The NCAA agrees UNC committed academic fraud. Here's why the NCAA isn't punishing the Heels for that

A more than 7-year-old story appears to wrap up.

NCAA Men's Final Four - Practice Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions “could not conclude” academic violations at North Carolina, it announced Friday, after a years-long investigation:

A Division I Committee on Infractions hearing panel could not conclude that the University of North Carolina violated NCAA academic rules when it made available deficient Department of African and Afro-American Studies “paper courses” to the general student body, including student-athletes.

The panel found just two violations, and neither will cause UNC serious trouble. They are that two former officials didn’t cooperate with NCAA investigators. One former department chair got a five-year “show cause” penalty, which will make it difficult for that person to work in college athletics during that period.

The NCAA didn’t absolve UNC of wrongdoing.

The NCAA thinks UNC hosted academic fraud. But it thinks the benefits of that fraud extended to non-athletes, too, and in the weird world of NCAA justice, that matters:

The widespread, non-athlete-specific nature of UNC’s alleged fraud made this less of an NCAA issue and more something for UNC to fix on its own. The NCAA has steep penalties for what it calls a “lack of institutional control” or a “failure to monitor” for violations, but it didn’t find that either of those things happened in Chapel Hill.

From the COI’s decision, which is here:

UNC repeatedly stressed that the conduct and courses failed to meet its standards and expectations. UNC also admitted that it permitted the conduct and courses to occur for 18 years because of institutional shortcomings. UNC acknowledged that those shortcomings included its failure to review the AFRI/AFAM department and its chair, based on policies existing at the time. By its own admissions, UNC appears to neither have had administrative control of the paper courses nor faculty control of the department chair. Considering these admitted failures, the panel explored whether UNC's shortcomings demonstrated a free-standing lack of control or failure to monitor.

But the NCAA was limited in how much it could prove.

UNC wasn’t doing things the way the NCAA prefers. But from a reading of the COI’s decision, the NCAA wasn’t able to hone in on specific violations by specific people. The NCAA says it didn’t get enough information from UNC to help prosecute the case.

“Because of this limitation, UNC's decision to support the courses as legitimate combined with a stale and incomplete record that does not allow the panel to drill down to the course and assignment level—even if the panel had wanted to second guess the courses—it cannot conclude academic fraud occurred,” the decision says.

So the NCAA seems angry, but it’s not doing much:

Similarly, it is undisputed that the classes were not a secret. Individuals in both academics and athletics knew about the courses. Many questioned them. Generally, all assumed they were acceptable under the principle of academic freedom. Both academic and athletic administrators did not believe they had the authority to question how a faculty member structured and taught a course. The panel respects the importance of academic freedom in higher education. But it is not boundless, and it cannot be utilized as a shield from responsibility in circumstances that involve student-athletes. For example, if a faculty member arranged for a student-athlete to receive credit in a course in which they did not enroll or attend or created a fake course that had no requirements but resulted in a grade, the NCAA Constitution would require anyone who became aware of that arrangement to report it.

The result is that Roy Williams’ men’s basketball program won’t face NCAA sanctioning. The NCAA banned the football team from a bowl appearance in 2012. That’s as far as it will go, it appears, which makes today a great day for the Tar Heels. It came at a steep financial cost over all these years, but UNC likely doesn’t mind that today.

This story’s been going on for so, so long.

To put this into perspective, this post is going into a stream of updates on the scandal that we started curating in July 2010. That’s when news surfaced that the NCAA was investigating the school’s football program — initially to learn whether players had received impermissible benefits.

The investigation bloomed from there into a probe of both football and men’s basketball, and it turned toward academics. It focused specifically on African-American studies classes at UNC, which a faculty report later suggested weren’t really “classes” at all. Many of the players in those classes were reportedly football and basketball players. Academic fraud has been the NCAA’s prime investigative target for years.

The timeline of the story runs deeper than 2010, though. It traces back to academic hires the university made in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, which laid the groundwork for the courses the NCAA eventually honed in on.

It’s become a point of internet humor — though not a joke, exactly — that Williams’ men’s basketball program might never face consequences for whatever it did wrong about a decade ago. The Tar Heels won the NCAA tournament in March, and this scandal’s been unfolding for longer than many others have started and finished. The only thing harder to believe than how long this has all taken is that it’s now ending.