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NCAA infractions panel could not conclude academic violations in North Carolina case

Gonzaga v North Carolina

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 03: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels questions the official against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the 2017 NCAA Men’s Final Four National Championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 3, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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If the NCAA’s investigation into North Carolina were a college student, it would have graduated a semester early.

On Friday morning, three-and-a-half years - and three Notices of Allegation - after the NCAA opened an investigation into alleged academic impropriety by the North Carolina athletic department and seven years after investigators first began looking into the UNC football program, we finally got an answer.

The NCAA infractions panel could not conclude that North Carolina committed academic violations. What the panel found was two violations: “the former department chair and a former curriculum secretary failed to cooperate during the investigation.”

That’s it.

“While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’ offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes,” said Greg Sankey, the panel’s chief hearing officer and commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. “The panel is troubled by the university’s shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus and the credibility of the Cadwalader report, which it distanced itself from after initially supporting the findings. However, NCAA policy is clear. The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership.”

The NCAA was unable to determine whether or not academic fraud occurred at North Carolina due to an NCAA principle that states that individual member schools are responsible for policing themselves. It is on the school itself to determine if academic fraud is happening on their campus.

Beyond that, the NCAA also determined that the paper classes were not impermissible benefits.

“While student-athletes likely benefited from the courses, so did the general student body,” said Sankey. “Additionally, the record did not establish that the university created and offered the courses as part of a systemic effort to benefit only student-athletes.”

The panel also determined that North Carolina did not fail to monitor or lack institutional control over the athletic department.

The NCAA charged North Carolina with five Level I violations, including a lack of institutional control, although none of the coaches at the school - including Roy Williams - were charged with any wrongdoing.

The focus of the investigation were independent study-style courses in the African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. They were identified as lecture classes, but the classes didn’t actually meet. They only required a research paper or two, and the NCAA alleged that the typically high grades were used to keep athletes eligible.

Former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein released an independent investigation into the scandal, and by his estimate more than half of the 3,100 students that enrolled in those course from 1993-2011 were Tar Heel athletes.

The football program was sanctioned in March of 2012 in the NCAA’s initial case, but in the summer of 2014, the investigation was reopened. North Carolina received the first Notice of Allegations in May of 2015, with subsequent NOA’s arriving in April and December of 2016. The main difference in the three was how the NCAA viewed some of the academic issues. Initially, they were considered improper benefits - access to courses and assistance in those courses not available to regular students - but that charge was removed in the second NOA only to be refiled in the third.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction in this matter. They contend that this is a school issue, one that should be handled by its accreditation agency - they already hit the school with a year of probation. UNC’s argument, which will likely be the crux of their appeal, is that the NCAA is overstepping their jurisdiction. The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC also argued that athletes did not receive special treatment since the classes were open to the public while challenging the number of athlete enrollments Wainstein came up with. He counted athletes who were no longer team members. The accurate figure is less than 30 percent, the school said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.