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The shame of UNC football

I have been wanting to write about this story for a few days now, and have not been able to find the time thus far. It's common knowledge that the NCAA's rules on amateurism are flouted all the time, to the point where there is a mass desensitization occurring to the general phenomenon. Miami, of course, had the recent Nevin Shapiro scandal that will probably lead to a whole host of sanctions. South Carolina boosters were recently caught funneling money to players in South Jersey, which unfortunately was a scandal that quickly fell off the public radar due to the developments at Penn State and Miami. At North Carolina, in turn, a rogue assistant coach stood accused funneling players to agents.

Like it or not, it is a fact of life that these things happen; even if it is fundamentally unfair for programs that make an effort at maintaining strict compliance with the rules. In fact, the NCAA creates strong incentives for cheating, essentially screening out and putting at a disadvantage those that wish to follow the rules. There are penalties in place for being caught, but usually they are a relative slap on the wrist, as long as you follow the NCAA's cardinal objective: do not lie to the NCAA. Cheat all you want, but as long as you are willing to confess your sins, all will soon be forgiven. Hence, the reason why UNC received a light punishment in response to the first set of allegations.

Buried under the initial set of allegations were a handful of reports, stating that a team tutor had written papers for several UNC football players, and another one that UNC football players had committed academic fraud due to plagiarism. Both are certainly troubling, and ought not to be seen as run of the mill in any respect, but still fall well within the norm of common sins of college athletics. Both sets of incidents have a fair bit of precedent, so the public and regulators remain relatively desensitized. Now however, a new report is claiming that UNC academics were complicit in academic fraud, assigning grades to UNC players for non-existent classes. Many journalists and the blogosphere are up in arms, but the story has understandably faded in the midst of the ever-present 24-hour news cycle.

That, again is a problem. If we go by what seems intuitive, the NCAA's harebrained standards where the only activities that actually warrant sufficient punishment are either repeat violations or lying to the NCAA would be the first insanity to be tossed aside. Punishments should be proportional to the alleged offenses committed, and the proven benefits received. The problem here then is that the folk, lay perception of a regulatory body like the NCAA is starkly inconsistent and strongly at odds with its actual record of behavior in practice. (Actually, the dichotomy is so strong that this might be a pure contradiction.) In this case, Breaking the rules allowed UNC to jump from a forgotten program under John Bunting into a consistent top 25 contender. College football is a zero-sum game; there must be winners and losers by definition. The mistake here is in not seeing the other 100+ odd programs in the bowl subdivision as aggrieved parties, as victims. The only fair restitution and consideration should be as punishment, to put the UNC program back where it was without benefit of the violations.

They should be devastated to the point of being a one or two win program over the next few years, not be allowed to maintain a loaded roster that should have a good opportunity for a quick turnaround under a new coach. The status quo is outrageous. Can anyone possibly argue that North Carolina football hasn't benefited, significantly, from cheating the rules at every opportunity? Not only should sanctions be in play for mere amateurism violations, but academic fraud of this nature, if true, should raise the specter of a SMU-style death penalty on to the table. Not as fodder for blog and message board discussion mind you, but rather in the actual halls of the NCAA. If the organization has any remaining integrity, or more accurately, if they have any genuine power - they not only ought to engage in the equivalent of setting UNC football back decades, they in fact should have the obligation to do just that. Otherwise, there is nothing in the way of moral hazard to prevent the next violator for upping the ante even further.

Not only should the program be functionally crippled (let's say: 10 year bowl ban, reduction to 50 scholarships for the near-future, and forfeiture of ACC television revenue to scholarships for needy students as bare minimums), but we also need to dispense with the outrageous fiction of letting UNC's stolen victories in the record books stand. Currently, they are merely vacated in official records; an ignominy that most observers are all too happy to ignore. What would be more appropriate would be to go beyond that. Not only should UNC's stolen wins be eviscerated from history, but they should be turned into losses, with the teams who lost to cheating squads be compensated correspondingly with wins.

If you think this suggestion is motivated by personal bias, you're damn right. Rutgers is coming off two straight losses to North Carolina by single digit point margins. It is far from outrageous to suggest that if it were not for outright cheating of the most egregious nature, then Rutgers would have emerged victorious from those games, enjoying all the subsequent spoils of victory as a result. It's goddamn bullshit, and therefore the time is nigh for the NCAA to actually chose a response with some outright teeth. Otherwise, they might as well just drop the pretense that they exist for any reason other than to provide a loose justification for anything other than being the poster child for regulatory capture.

Either these rules should have teeth, or they are vacuous, convenient fictions that do more harm than good in giving cover to villains. As stands, the problem of lax, backward-looking (as opposed to preventative) rule enforcement is facing increasing media scrutiny, which is likely to destroy public credibility in the NCAA as an institutional honest broker, and shatter any lingering perception of fairness and a level playing field. That may well be an ideal outcome, but it surely is not one that the powers that be who benefit from the existing "see no evil" setup want to see implemented. If they are not careful about changing their ways in short order, the day of reckoning on this public expectation gap may well soon be at hand given current trends.