CRAWFORD | Stall game may pay off for North Carolina once again
WDRB"s Eric Crawford looks at the academic scandal at North Carolina, and the dwindling chances of seeing any NCAA sanctions.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It took a long time for me not to hate North Carolina basketball. But you have to understand, I grew up in Kentucky. Without a shot clock.
While they celebrate the “four corners” offense in Chapel Hill, even have a Four Corners bar and grille, I grew up being taught that stall-ball was an abomination. Literally. I once heard a deacon at our small Baptist church call it “un-Christian.”
I lack Scriptural authority to back up that position, but it sounds right to me.
The notion that you’d get the lead, then take your ball and, not go home, but play keep-away, seemed a perversion of the game, and it does still.
Now, I was just a kid in those days. We all mature. I met Dean Smith. I covered North Carolina basketball games. I grew to respect him and his way of doing things -- well, his way of doing most things.
But I admit it, I loved it when Smith pulled the ball out, trying to lure Duke out of a 2-3 zone defense in Cameron Indoor Stadium in a late-season game in 1979, and the Tar Heels didn’t score for an entire half. It was 3-0 with about 6 minutes left in the half, and Duke led at halftime 7-0, before winning 47-40. As far as I was concerned, Smith got what he deserved.
And, when in 1983, Cincinnati employed stall tactics to try to stay with Kentucky in a 24-11 loss, I blamed Dean Smith for that, too.
The shot clock and three-point shot have purged many of those memories from my mind. But not all of them. People think of North Carolina today and think of names like Worthy and Jordan and Sam Perkins, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse and on and on.
But for me, the memory of the stall lives on.
Which brings us to the present day, with the Tar Heels and coach Roy Williams having earned a second straight trip to the title game in Monday night’s matchup against Gonzaga, and facing yet another round of questions over an academic scandal that plagued the school from 1993 to 2011.
During that time, hundreds of athletes and regular students took part in independent studies in the African and Afro-American Studies program with no instructor, and nearly 200 lecture-based classes in the department never met, yet grades were issued and grade-point averages inflated, many of them for student-athletes. In all, a 2014 report by the school states, more than 3,000 students took “nonexistent” classes over an 18-year period. It further states that those who facilitated the arrangement “saw the paper classes and the artificially high grades they yielded as key to helping some student-athletes remain eligible.”
You can’t take the air out of the ball on the basketball court anymore. But North Carolina (and, to be fair, the NCAA, too) still can run the stall.
After an NCAA Notice of Allegations in May of 2015, the school, shortly before its deadline to respond, submitted new information to the NCAA and extended the entire process. The NCAA issued an amended NOA in April of last year, and the school responded on August 1. On its way to a hearing before the NCAA’s committee on infractions, the case hit another snag and NCAA enforcement officials asked to change the Notice of Allegations again.
A third NOA was received by UNC on Dec. 13, 2016. It was a more sharply worded document than its predecessor, and mentioned specifically men’s basketball and football as benefiting from the arrangement.
UNC had until March 13, four weeks ago, to respond, but did not, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, which has led the way in coverage of the scandal. A statement from the school to the newspaper said the decision was made “in consultation” with the NCAA as it awaits a new calendar from NCAA officials. The case has been further complicated by the decision of Deborah Crowder, the former manager of the AFAM department, to break her silence with an affidavit in which she referred to the alleged bogus classes as “customized educational opportunities” for students who were facing difficulty with “institutional bureaucracy,” arguing that they were available to all students, not just athletes.
Customized educational opportunities? If I’m a University of Louisville lawyer, I’m amending my response to the NCAA to characterize the strippers and prostitutes in the men’s basketball dorm as “customized hospitality opportunities.” Nah. You're right. Doesn't help.
Look, if you’re needing someone to break down the nuances of this case, I’m not your guy. This thing has grown to such a scope, with multiple NCAA notices and multiple responses, that I don’t know how anyone is going to make real sense of it.
What I can talk about is general principles. The NCAA, as a rule, leaves the business of academics in the hands of its institutions. It has to. You can’t lay down a uniform way of doing things. The NCAA governs Yale and Harvard the same as it does Louisville and Kentucky.
I’m not denigrating anyone by pointing out that those schools operate with different policies. English Literature at one is going to differ from English Lit at another. Course offerings are different. The NCAA can’t govern those.
The NCAA’s latest NOA to North Carolina acknowledged this when it said that its bylaws “do not generally contemplate the infractions process addressing quality and content assessments regarding academic courses.”
Enforcement officials, did, however note that the NCAA can get involved in determining whether a school is cutting corners for its athletes to gain a competitive advantage -- including the question of whether athletes were being deprived of educational opportunities or benefits that regular students get.
The reason all this is complicated is that you’re talking about a single department, at a high-end public university. Chances are, the math and chemistry courses that students and athletes at North Carolina take are more challenging than the norm. This is my opinion, not backed up by any data, but I’d be willing to bet that the entire North Carolina education, even if you took a handful of bogus classes, still was more challenging than you get at quite a few NCAA institutions, maybe even most.
But at the same time, you had this mess going on in a single department, and you had athletes MAJORING in that department, or otherwise taking enough courses there to inflate their grade-point averages.
Beyond that, you have men’s basketball, which had a high number of AFAM majors on its 2005 NCAA championship team, but who had a decreasing number once current coach Roy Williams became aware of how many of those courses his players were taking. Williams is accused of no wrongdoing at all by the NCAA. He faces no sanctions.
And, finally, you have a team of players now who had nothing to do with that scandal, led by a coach who is accused of no wrongdoing.
So, what am I getting at?
If North Carolina wins an NCAA title Monday night, is it tainted?
No. I believe it isn’t.
At some point, it’s likely the NCAA could erase North Carolina’s 2005 championship from the record books, if it concludes that the grades from those classes would’ve resulted in ineligible athletes competing. (And things like tutors writing papers for athletes can also bleed into the realm of “impermissible benefit,” in addition to the academic fraud question.)
But in the end, there’s not much else the NCAA can do, this far removed from the actual events. The school may well have demonstrated a lack of institutional control for allowing the fraud to continue for so long. Or, as it seems to be arguing now, if the school didn’t consider fraud to be happening, how can the NCAA step in and say differently, given that schools get to set their own policies, and North Carolina’s own accrediting agency has removed the school from probation after steps it has taken to correct the situation?
Maybe North Carolina receives a large fine. Maybe it makes amends in other ways. But the NCAA cannot, in good conscience, ban a school from postseason play for things that happened seven years prior, and before. So North Carolina could lose its 2005 NCAA title. It might well have a shiny, new one to replace it.
I hated the stall game. I still hate the stall game.
But no one ever said it didn’t work. It might’ve been bad for college basketball, but it worked.
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