In football and men's basketball North Carolina is telling recruits that there's nothing to worry about when it comes to possible NCAA sanctions in those sports. The question, clear enough, is this: Is that a good idea given all the unknowns?
First some background: UNC picked up two football commitments recently at Fedora's Freak Show – the Tar Heels' signature high school camp – and both players, Luke Elder and Tomon Fox, said they'd received satisfying answers to questions about an ongoing NCAA infractions case and the Notice of Allegations UNC recently received. Another football player who recently committed to UNC, quarterback Chazz Surratt, also said he'd been told football was in the clear.
Edler, an offensive lineman, and Fox, a linebacker, both said they'd had concerns about what the NCAA Committee on Infractions might do to the football program amid an investigation into bogus African Studies courses that benefited a large number of athletes over nearly 20 years. And Elder and Fox, both from Georgia, said they'd had their questions answered.
Fox said he spoke with coach Larry Fedora and Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, about what Fox described as “the sanction stuff.” He said he felt “reassured” after those conversations.
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“Coach Fedora told me he talked to an attorney – like, football won't be touched by that,” Fox said. “So I was like, all right, that's good to hear.”
Elder, meanwhile, said he was encouraged, too, by what Fedora told him about all of this.
“The more I talk to coach about it,” Elder said, “and the more he says the same thing, (which) I 100 percent am with him on, and it's that the NCAA, in the (notice of the allegations), they never named football specifically. So I just trusted him and I knew he wouldn't lie to me or anything like that.
“I know they'll be OK.”
Meanwhile, here's what Surratt, the quarterback prospect who switched his commitment from Duke to UNC, told the Gaston Gazette last week: “The coaches said that their lawyers told them 100 percent the football team won’t be touched.”
Roy Williams is giving similar kinds of assurances, at least according to one prospect who recently received a UNC scholarship offer. UNC recently offered a men's basketball scholarship to Sacha Killeya-Jones, a Chapel Hill resident who plays at Virginia Episcopal School.
Killeya-Jones said during a phone interview on Thursday that he received the scholarship offer while playing pick-up games with some of UNC's returning players and alumni. Williams met with Killeya-Jones in his office, Killeya-Jones said, and then Williams spent more time speaking with his parents.
The NCAA investigation came up.
“Coach Williams, he reiterated to us and reassured us that men's basketball, there's no allegations against men's basketball,” Killeya-Jones said, “And there can't be a punishment without allegations.”
Killeya-Jones said other schools recruiting him haven't reminded him of the uncertainty at UNC because of the NCAA case. If schools were doing that, Killeya-Jones said, it would be “a red flag.” Regardless, he said he “definitely” felt reassured after speaking with Williams about the investigation.
It's obvious enough why Fedora and Williams would be telling recruits what they're telling them: The NOA charges neither football nor men's basketball with having committed any NCAA violations. Neither sport is charged, specifically, with an allegation of wrongdoing.
But like most things with the NCAA, it's hardly that black and white. And while football and men's basketball aren't charged, specifically, those sports are mentioned plenty of times in the NOA, with nearly all of the references filling the various pages of exhibits that support the five allegations.
The word “football” appears 33 times in the NOA – most in the “factual information” portion of the document (which, again, offer supporting evidence of the various allegations). The phrase “men's basketball” appears 27 times in the NOA.
So are Fedora and Williams in the right for telling recruits there's nothing to worry about? Or are they playing a carefully-worded game of semantics? The answer to that question depends on how you interpret the NOA. And how you interpret the NOA probably depends on your opinion of what the Committee on Infractions should do – or shouldn't do – when it comes to the penalty phase of the case.
The NOA can be interpreted any number of ways and can be interpreted correctly, too, by people with extremely different views of it. You can say that football and men's basketball aren't specifically charged with wrongdoing. And you can also say those sports are referenced throughout the document. Both statements are correct.
Which is more significant – that football and men's basketball aren't specifically charged with anything, or that those sports are mentioned throughout the exhibits that support the allegations? It's logical to conclude football and men's basketball would avoid the most significant sanctions – postseason bans, vacation of victories, massive scholarship cuts – because they're not specifically charged with wrongdoing.
Yet it's also logical to conclude that those kinds of sanctions could be possible – maybe not likely, but possible – because it's clear athletes from those sports benefited from the sham courses. Allegation No. 5 puts the onus of the lack of institutional control charge on “individuals in the academic administration on campus,” and it alleges that their failures “allowed individuals within (athlete academic support) to use these courses through special arrangements to maintain the eligibility of academically at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football, men's basketball and women's basketball.”
It remains to be seen how UNC will respond to the fifth allegation but there doesn't seem to be disputable. So then the question becomes, how will the Committee on Infractions react to it? Athletes in football, men's basketball and women's basketball, and other sports, benefited from those suspect courses, after all, but, again, the lack of institutional control charge is against “individuals in the academic administration” and not against specific teams or even against the athletic department in general.
Another important distinction in all of this is that the NCAA Enforcement Staff has made this an impermissible benefits case and not an academic fraud case. About 3,100 UNC students, 47 percent of them athletes, took fraudulent classes for 18 years, and yet the phrase “academic fraud” appears exactly once in the NOA, and as an unrelated reference at that.
Given what's in the NOA, and what's not in the NOA, it's understandable why Fedora and Williams are saying what they're saying to prospects. Their sports aren't charged with having committed violations. Nobody associated with their sports are charged with having committed violations. And because of those two things, they feel confident their sports will avoid significant sanctions.
Should they be, though? The Committee on Infractions is the wildest of wild cards, and you just never know how it's going to rule with a certain case. Predicting what the COI will do in a routine case is difficult enough. This case is the opposite of routine. It has no precedent, no comparison. There's no model or guide or blueprint. Who knows what the COI will do?
That said, there are at least some things we know won't happen. Among them:
--The death penalty.
UNC was never in danger of facing the so-called “death penalty,” whatever that would even look like today. Not happening – not a chance – so put that one to rest.
A TV ban, in 2015, to a school in a major conference that receives loads of TV revenue annually? Good one. Like the death penalty, this was never a remote possibility.
--Sanctions specific to Williams.
For anyone wondering why Williams wouldn't face the same kind of penalty as, say, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who is suspended for half his team's regular-season ACC games next year, the answer is pretty simple: Boeheim was charged with committing a violation, and his program was specifically charged with committing several. Williams was charged with nothing. And neither was his program.
So you can rule those out. There will be no death penalty. No TV ban. No NCAA-mandated suspension for Williams or anything else coming his way. Yet everything else? Postseason bans and vacation of victories and scholarship cuts? Those can't be ruled out, as much as Williams and Fedora would like to rule them out.
Now, are postseason bans, vacation of victories and the like likely in football and men's basketball? Based on the way the NOA is structured – without those sports facing specific allegations of wrongdoing – those penalties don't seem likely.
If the NCAA Enforcement Staff believed football and men's basketball committed violations, it certainly could have, and would have, charged those sports with wrongdoing. It didn't, though. So does that mean those sports are in the clear? Fedora and Williams seem to think so, based on what they're telling recruits. It's an understandable move on their part but one that could backfire, too, if they turn out to be wrong.
Fedora and Williams, and their programs, have for a while now dealt with the kind of scrutiny that comes naturally with NCAA investigations. Both coaches have admitted difficulty recruiting amid no shortage of negative speculation and Williams has been forced to defend his integrity and character amid questions of what he knew about the suspect courses.
If it turns out that they're wrong – and that football and/or men's basketball does receive significant sanctions – the words they're sharing with recruits now could come back to haunt them when this case (finally) ends. Based on how the NOA is constructed, it seems unlikely that football and men's basketball would endure significant sanctions. Yet the specter of them will remain until the COI decides UNC's fate.
Until then, no one knows what might happen, Fedora and Williams included.
Andrew Carter covers UNC athletics for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter @_andrewcarter.