College Basketball

Interpreting ‘impermissible benefits’ at heart of NCAA case against UNC

The NCAA has alleged that between 2002 and 2011, North Carolina provided athletes with impermissible benefits related to academics, and that charge might be the most significant given that it could decide, more than anything, the severity of sanctions UNC faces.

Or, those impermissible benefits might have no bearing on the penalties UNC receives. As is often the case in NCAA infractions cases, there are different ways to interpret the same rule and there are, as there always is, no shortage of questions and unknowns.

What is known, at least, is that the notice of allegations (NOA) that UNC received – which it released on Thursday in redacted form – contained five charges against the school: lack of institutional control, two instances of unethical conduct by former employees Julius Nyang’oro and Deborah Crowder and two charges involving the provision of impermissible benefits to athletes.

The impermissible benefits charges, in particular, are significant because they can easily be connected to possible sanctions. Athletes who receive impermissible benefits are generally ruled to be ineligible from competition, and so any UNC athlete who received such benefits, it could be argued, competed while ineligible – thus raising the possibility of vacating wins and championships.

At UNC, though, the charges of impermissible benefits relate to academic benefits, and not benefits – like the use of a rental car, for instance – that come with an easily-attached monetary value. And that distinction, ultimately, could preclude UNC from facing significant sanctions resulting from the impermissible benefits.

When it comes time, NCAA bylaw is likely to be a central part of UNC’s argument that the impermissible benefits it furnished should not lead to retroactive ineligibility for the athletes who received those benefits. Bylaw states, among other things, that impermissible benefits with no monetary value attached “shall not affect the student-athlete’s eligibility.”

If the athletes who received the extra impermissible benefits weren’t ineligible because of them, UNC should avoid having to vacate victories of competitions in which those who’d received impermissible benefits participated. That means there’s a stronger likelihood, for instance, that UNC’s 2005 men’s basketball championship remains safe.

“It’s a positive for Carolina that the extra benefits that have been alleged were not assigned a numerical value, a monetary value in the notice of allegations itself,” Stuart Brown, an Atlanta-based lawyer who has represented colleges and universities in various NCAA compliance cases, said Friday. “In any event, it is certainly a legitimate argument for the institution to make that (the benefits) shouldn’t be assigned a value.”

Even so, Brown stopped short of concluding that UNC is in the clear – when it comes to significant sanctions – because the values of the impermissible benefits it granted aren’t associated with a dollar amount.

“It’s possible that even in academic-related extra benefits cases,” Brown said, “that as things go down the road values can be assigned to ancillary components of that. Now normally that would be set forth in the Notice of Allegations, if that were going to be pursued.”

Stacey Osburn, a spokeswoman for the NCAA, wrote in an email on Friday that “the short answer is that yes, academic impermissible benefits can affect eligibility.”

“There is an exception to the rule (bylaw that states as much,” Osburn wrote.

She also acknowledged that academic benefits that on their face might not appear to have a monetary value could, in fact, carry a monetary value upon closer examination.

The scope of the charges against UNC in the NOA make it difficult to forecast what penalties individual sports might face. Outside of women’s basketball, none of the five charges against UNC names a specific team.

And outside of Jan Boxill, the former women’s basketball academic counselor who is charged with providing impermissible benefits, no one associated with any team – not a head coach, assistant coach or an administrator – is named in the five allegations.

Still, the NOA does include, among the evidence supporting the allegations, references to men’s basketball, football, women’s soccer and other sports. For instance Wayne Walden, the former men’s basketball academic counselor, appears several times in the NOA because the 15 emails – among others – he exchanged with Crowder are part of the evidence supporting the impermissible benefits charge.

Ultimately, though, those extra benefits might have no bearing on eligibility. Or, they might. There is no clear-cut, black-and-white answer – at least without knowing more details than what the NOA provided.

The Committee on Infractions represents a wild card, too, because of its impossible-to-predict nature.

Even in the absence of ineligibility resulting from impermissible benefits, Brown, the lawyer, said in “an extraordinary circumstance” the committee could still decide to issue a vacation-of-victories penalty.

But, Brown said, “I think the institution would have a really good argument to say, no – if ineligible players did not participate, there’s no basis to vacate games and other penalties would be more appropriate.”

Bubba Cunningham, the North Carolina athletic director, declined Thursday to entertain the idea of what penalties UNC might face, and the possible severity of them.

“To speculate on the outcome,” he said, “is premature.”

Cunningham also said that he agreed with some aspects of the NOA and disagreed with other parts of it, though he wouldn’t elaborate on the parts he found inaccurate. Either way, it seems likely that Cunningham and the UNC administration would argue that the charges of impermissible benefits shouldn’t lead to ineligibility for athletes who received those benefits.

If that’s a successful argument, it would likely increase the chances that UNC avoids vacating victories or championships.

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