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How the UNC academic scandal hurts the NCAA's future

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It's getting harder for the NCAA to argue that athletes are students first, thanks to scandals like this one.

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

We knew a report was coming, but the details of the Wainstein report on the North Carolina academic fraud scandal were even more shocking than most expected.

The fraud lasted 18 years, and it included 1,500 athletes (most from the revenue sports of football and men's basketball). Academic advisers steered athletes into easy classes and even emailed professors, telling them what grades they should give athletes:

As many UNC fans would be quick to point out, this kind of thing happens everywhere, and to some extent, that's true. The scope of the Tar Heels' fraud would be tough to match, but throughout Division I college sports, there have been many allegations that athletes are steered into easier classes, even at schools traditionally known for academic excellence, like Stanford and Northwestern.

At North Carolina, it is clear that many athletes weren't educated the way that the school claimed they were, and it's fair to say that in many cases, athletes were exploited to keep bringing money and publicity to the university, then dumped after four years with a degree, but no education.

The NCAA is still deciding on whether it will have any punishment stemming from the new findings. But regardless of what happens here, the organization and its schools have to be awfully worried about what this means for its future.

Part of the NCAA's saving grace in the Ed O'Bannon trial was that its educational values prevented Judge Claudia Wilken from issuing a very broad injunction. The NCAA could still be able to cap player compensation at $5,000 per year -- and in a trust fund, no less -- in part because Wilken worried that athletes receiving more money would separate them too far from the university:

"(D)epending on how much compensation was ultimately awarded, some student-athletes might receive more money from the school than their professors. Student-athletes might also be inclined to separate themselves from the broader campus community by living and socializing off campus."

The idea of athletics and education being intertwined into one scholastic experience was brought up at the Northwestern unionization hearing at length, too. And while the university lost that case, it's clear that the main strategy for schools in these legal situations is going to use educational goals as a justification for rules that would otherwise be in violation of labor and antitrust laws.

But with each new case that comes out, that argument becomes harder to defend. How could North Carolina, if it were hypothetically brought to a unionization hearing, claim that it puts education and athletics on the same level? How could it claim that its priority is to educate athletes, not just keep them eligible?

Scandal FAQ

That extends to the NCAA's defense in antitrust court. The response to the NCAA's absurd proclamation that sports come secondary to academics for athletes used to be met by an "Oh, come on." But as cases of academic fraud and evidence of steering continue, it's becoming easier for those attacking the NCAA to point to substantive evidence that the NCAA does promote education enough to allow it to blatantly violate antitrust laws. The UNC scandal is by far the most egregious evidence we've seen yet.

The O'Bannon suit was only the beginning for the NCAA. Next up is the Jeffrey Kessler lawsuit, which threatens to go much further than the O'Bannon suit and take down compensation limits and recruiting rules altogether. We might never get to a world with that, but it's not hard to envision one in which schools are allowed to make offers to athletes that include compensation.

It's actions like those at North Carolina that are clearing the way for that to happen.