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UNC, and the NCAA's perverse incentive structure

Rutgers fans know a thing or two about the need to not rush to pre-judgment, but the latest round of allegations against North Carolina football do not look good.

Former North Carolina assistant coach John Blake was in communication with UNC football players Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas during their trip to a training facility in California before the 2009 season.

Cellphone records obtained following a court ruling in a lawsuit filed against the university by The (Raleigh) News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and other news organizations also show that Blake, head coach Butch Davis' top recruiter for three and a half years, used a university-paid number to contact (phone calls or texts) numbers associated with NFL agent Gary Wichard and Davis during the players' visit.

From a purely selfish perspective, Rutgers fans have to be hoping for the hammer to fall here. Rutgers barely survived North Carolina five years ago, requiring a historic Joe Dailey meltdown to secure the victory that day. In many respects, that game was not the program's finest hour, but it provided crucial momentum and confidence to the Scarlet Knights, while at the same time sealing John Bunting's fate in eventually losing his job. If the two teams played again in December of that year, with Kenny Britt emerging, and Mike Teel firing on all cylinders, RU comfortably wins by double digits. There will be no complaints from New Jersey (okay, there probably will still be a lot of critical comments) this fall if Rutgers takes advantage of a sanctions-crippled UNC to steal a victory. Otherwise, Rutgers fans should be largely indifferent to these proceedings; unless you are still incredulous over their fans' laughable complaints about Savon Huggins's recruitment.

How likely is it that anything bad is actually going to happen to UNC football though? Unlike the case with now-disposed Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, there is no evidence that Butch Davis lied to the NCAA, and no direct link between Davis and any alleged violations. The criticism is that he should have known that one of his assistants (with a lengthy track record of rule violations) was up to no good, that there may have been repeated violations of the NCAA's amateurism policy, that there may have been academic improprieties. As head coach, he is ultimately responsible however; just as their broader athletic department is tasked with supervising the football program.

Precedent is mixed on whether North Carolina will be able to escape with minor sanctions. The NCAA grew gun shy after giving SMU the death penalty in 1987, instead punishing SEC violators with probation, bowl bans, rescinded victories, and the like. These penalties were sufficient to set back programs like Alabama and Auburn for a period, and might be more crippling at a traditional basketball school like North Carolina. USC was found to have used an ineligible player in Reggie Bush, and was penalized in a similar manner, with the resulting fallout helping to push Pete Carroll out the door. At first glance, the UNC case appears more serious than the allegations against USC, especially when comparing the role of Blake to that of Todd McNair. Still, UNC partisans were spinning from day one.

Multiple sources indicate that UNC is likely to lose a minimal amount of scholarships and will be placed on probation for several years, while a forfeiture of wins is also a possibility. Restrictions on postseason play or television contracts are not expected. However, NCAA guidelines state that proposed penalties are not discussed until after the school responds to its notice of allegations.

How could UNC escape USC-style punishments? The only possible explanation would be if their athletic department had been forthright and cooperative throughout the investigative process. If so, that really brings to light a core flaw in the NCAA's compliance process. As they do not have the resources to run proactive investigations, largely outsourcing that job to media like Yahoo Sports, the NCAA's main interest then is in maintaining respect for the NCAA as an institution, and guarding the integrity of their investigative process. They ultimately do not have any way to determine what happened; all they can really do is interview people, and issue the rare punishment in response to lying to investigators - the only violation that they can prove definitively.

The case in point here is that the NCAA initially suspended Jim Tressel for a mere two games after learning that several Buckeyes had competed while ineligible, only getting serious after learning Tressel had filed false affidavits. Message received - the NCAA only cares so much about actual cheating. In their eyes, the cover up is worse than the alleged crime. That is how Richard Nixon and Jim Leavitt slipped up after all. Those (mainly located in Raleigh, Durham, and Blacksburg) wishing ill will on Tar Heel football may be left wanting if this principle saves North Carolina from the full brunt of NCAA wrath and internal immolation.

Intuitively, this incentive system feels inherently, profoundly divorced from any standard of justice, fairness, or proportionately. Programs and/or boosters violate NCAA by-laws precisely because they think they can get away with it. If someone runs an implicit cost/benefit analysis before deciding to cross a line, the decision is clear: cheat, and cheat as much as possible. USC and Ohio State both fell because they became sloppy. Someone in Reggie Bush's camp did not take care of Lloyd Lake; for whatever reason, Jim Tressel was not forthcoming about a tip that several players took benefits from boosters. No one would have ever found out about John Blake's dealings with Gary Wichard had Marvin Austin not acted like a complete moron (it's safe to say that Rutgers is not cheating; if they were, Kenny Britt undoubtedly would have inadvertently blown the lid off the whole sordid matter by now.)

The NCAA failing to come down hard on UNC (re: equivalent to USC) would effectively give a green light to every street agent and shady booster out there. Cheat, because you probably are not going to be caught. Cheat, because if we do catch you, and you cooperate, you will mostly get off the hook, and keep the spoils of your crimes. North Carolina may have sacrificed a dark-horse championship contender last season to the NCAA gods, but they still return a roster loaded to the brim with blue-chip talent. Many of their best players with secured precisely through the efforts of Blake, or recruited based off the promise of steadily improving progress on the field; progress that came through the use of ineligible players.

It is impossible to determine how much benefit UNC received from using players who should have been ineligible. Anything short of complete devastation though, anything they can quickly bounce back from, and they will still end up being quantifiably better off as the result of having committed NCAA violations. Between ongoing investigations of Ohio State, Tennessee, UNC, other programs, and continuing rumors about a second shot at USC (for hiring Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron, essentially screaming that the program had no remorse for the Bush-era sanctions), right now there is a widespread perception that the NCAA may finally be getting serious about compliance with teeth. That collective belief would quickly evaporate if UNC's violations are indeed comparable to USC's, but their ultimate sanctions are not.