After the public release Thursday of the notice of allegations the NCAA sent to North Carolina, the good news is this for the men's basketball program: Neither coach Roy Williams nor any member of his staff was accused of committing any NCAA violations.
That much is clear, at least, but not much else is about how an NCAA investigation into the relationship between the UNC athletic department and suspect African and Afro-American Studies paper classes might affect the men's basketball program. Will it eventually be subject to sanctions?
Will it be forced to vacate victories or even a national championship? Will it endure the loss of scholarships? Or will it face no penalties in a scandal that ensnared athletes from an array of sports, including men's and women's basketball, football, baseball and women's soccer.
Williams had been hoping that the notice would provide clarity and something of an escape from what he described earlier this week as “a tremendous cloud.” The notice provided some clarity, but it created more questions, too.
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Answers to those questions will come much later, after UNC meets before the NCAA Committee on Infractions. And so the uncertainty that has surrounded Williams' program is likely to remain, despite the fact that the NCAA Enforcement Staff didn't specifically accuse it of wrongdoing.
“It's felt like a cloud over us, and it's felt like we've been accused of doing so many things that we knew we did not do, and know we did not do,” Williams said Tuesday during an appearance at a charity golf tournament. “So I'll be glad to get that over with and get the allegations out there and then go through the whole process.
Among the five allegations against UNC, though, is that between 2002 and 2011 it provided athletes impermissible benefits that were not available to the general student body. The notice didn't identify the sports associated with the athletes who received those benefits, but there were 15 email exchanges between Wayne Walden, the team's former academic counselor, and Debby Crowder, the AFAM office manager who orchestrated the paper classes scheme.
The impermissible benefits included what the NCAA described as “special arrangements” to take suspect AFAM paper classes. They also included allowing athletes to exceed limits in the number of independent studies credits that would count toward graduation.
Any athlete who received those impermissible benefits could be ruled retroactively ineligible, and the use of an ineligible player in competition could lead to penalties such as the vacation of victories or championships, or a future postseason ban.
Michael Buckner, a Florida-based lawyer who specializes in NCAA infractions cases, said Thursday that it was “quite reasonable” to conclude that the NCAA might penalize specific teams for the use of athletes who received impermissible benefits.
Buckner said the NCAA Committee on Infractions often enacts postseason bans, for instance, “if the student athlete that was alleged or found to have received an impermissible benefit competed in postseason play while they were ineligible.”
For now, though, it's impossible to know, based on the public version of the notice that the university released, which UNC teams might have been in danger of using players who are alleged to have received impermissible benefits. During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, declined to identify which sports might be at risk.
“As it relates to a specific student, (it's) not at this time that we're prepared to go into which (athletes) it may affect,” Cunningham said. “It will take us more time to digest the details of each of these allegations.”
Though the men's basketball program isn't specifically charged with committing violations, the notice included in its evidence for the broader allegations numerous instances of Walden and Crowder communicating about placing athletes in AFAM courses, and in one exchange, in August 2008, Walden thanking Crowder for enrolling athletes in an AFAM course. Later that month, Walden enthusiastically thanked Crowder for enrolling another athlete in an AFAM course.
“You are the best!” Walden wrote to Crowder.
Walden left UNC in 2009. By then, the men's basketball enrollments in the suspect AFAM paper classes had dropped significantly. Overall, the investigation led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein found that the men's basketball team accounted for 280 enrollments in the bogus courses, which operated from 1993 through 2011.
During Dean Smith's coaching tenure, there were 54 men's basketball enrollments in the suspect classes. There were 17 enrollments under Bill Guthridge, 42 under his successor, Matt Doherty, and 167 under Williams.
The NCAA enforcement staff, though, is treating the paper class scheme not as an academic fraud case but as one involving impermissible benefits and a lack of institutional control. The lack of institutional control charge is the most serious one UNC faces, though it isn't tied to a specific sport.
“Everyone who loves Carolina is truly saddened by these allegations,” Williams said in a statement released on Thursday. “We aspire to and work toward meeting higher standards than the actions that warranted this notice.”
The wide scope of the NCAA's investigation and the broadness of the allegations make it impossible to predict how individual sports, including men's basketball, might be penalized. Asked on Thursday if the notice provided him with confidence that the men's basketball team wouldn't face significant sanctions, Cunningham said it was too early to speculate.
He said in discussing the notice with UNC coaches earlier in the day, he used the analogy that the university had reached halftime of the investigative process. UNC has 90 days from the receipt of the notice to respond to it, which means its response is due by Aug. 18.
From there, it will meet before the NCAA Committee on Infractions, which will decide what sanctions UNC will face. Men's basketball isn't specifically charged in the notice, but Cunningham cautioned against thinking that means it will automatically escape penalties.
“Penalties associated with those potential allegations is purely speculative at this point, and I think it will take us some time to really produce a response that is appropriate,” Cunningham said. “And at that time we will have our opportunity to meet with the Committee on Infractions for them to make that determination about penalties.”
Since the NCAA last summer reopened its investigation at UNC, Williams' program – and several others – has had difficulty recruiting amid the uncertainty. The release of the notice of allegations provided answers to some questions – Williams can now say that his program wasn't specifically charged – but it also created more of them.