The NCAA takes a swing at UNC

The Observer editorial board

UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt listens as Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham speaks last October about the school’s investigation into academic fraud.
UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt listens as Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham speaks last October about the school’s investigation into academic fraud. cliddy@newsobserver.com

“Debby is extremely disappointed.”

So said the subject line of an email contained in the 700-plus pages of the NCAA’s notice of allegations to the University of North Carolina released Thursday.

The notice tells a troubling story of academic fraud that’s familiar to anyone who has followed the UNC scandal. The email, and its author’s disappointment, offer some clues about the harsh penalties UNC might be facing.

Debby, of course, is Deborah Crowder, the architect of the paper class scheme in UNC’s Afro-American Studies Department. Crowder also was the go-to person for those who needed to keep athletes eligible to play sports at UNC.

Crowder was disappointed because two UNC football players turned in the exact same paper in one AFAM class. In her email to the athletes, she said was insulted and even “hurt” – after all, she “personally, have always, always tried to give you guys the benefit of the doubt.”

That’s disturbing enough, but instead of disciplining or failing the players – as many professors would – she simply let them turn in new papers. Debby was disappointed, but as always, Debby came through.

If Crowder referring to herself in the third-person seems rather self-important, it also was self-aware. Most everyone in the athletic department knew who “Debby” was and what she was doing, the NCAA clearly reveals. That’s why UNC has been hit with the dreaded NCAA charges of “lack of institutional control.”

NCAA investigations often snag lower-level officials and coaches, the ones tasked with the dirty work of college sports. That was the case at UNC, where besides Crowder, the people most implicated were tutors and staffers, including Jan Boxhill, the former chair of the faculty who was nabbed in her role as women’s basketball academic counselor.

Make no mistake, though: There’s little chance UNC coaches and administrators didn’t have at least an inkling of what was going on with athletes. College coaches know most everything about their prized assets, including what classes they’re taking and, especially, who is struggling. To suggest they were ignorant of an academic release valve widely known in the athletic department strains credulity.

Still, without a paper trail leading to individual coaches or administrators, the NCAA was left with the lack of institutional control charge. That allegation says that even if coaches and the athletic director didn’t know of the widespread fraud, they should have.

The result: UNC’s athletic programs, more than individuals, will likely be hit with significant penalties. That surely will include scholarship losses, a common NCAA punishment, for at least the football, women’s basketball and men’s basketball teams. Postseason bans are also a possibility, as are vacating wins or basketball titles – although the NCAA tends to wield the latter only for severe and widespread infractions centered on one team.

UNC could only help itself by shushing Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham, who continued this week to dilute the university’s expression of remorse with some ill-advised defiance. “I think at times I would be disappointed with maybe actions of what we did as a university,” he said of the notice of allegations Thursday. “Other times I’d be disappointed in how things were characterized that I would think would be inaccurate.”

Perhaps he should focus instead on repairing the damage his athletic department has done to his school, its students and alumni. Debby may have been disappointed. All of UNC should be.