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News & Observer must address culture that led to misguided editorials

Posted on Jun 11, 2015 by




The News & Observer published yet another editorial on Wednesday about what the NCAA should do regarding the paper class scandal at North Carolina.


Look, I really don’t want to be “that guy” who writes takedown pieces any time someone says something bad about North Carolina. That’s not who I want to be. That being said, this editorial, like the Patrick O’Neill op-ed, must be looked at section-by-section to clarify a few things.


Given the unlimited content that North Carolina’s scandal has given the News & Observer, one can only assume that this will be an upbeat and positive take on why it’s a good thing that the NCAA is investigating the univeris–

Though the NCAA huffs and puffs about rule-breakers, its “penalties” never have amounted to much: lost scholarships, perhaps a probation, a temporary ban on post-season play. The truth is, neither the organization nor its member schools care much for punishment. People make mistakes. Uh, oh. Oh, golly, we’re sorry. They didn’t mean it. We don’t want to hurt the kids.

DAMN. This immediately has “hot take” written all over it. It has all of the ingredients:

  • Language from children’s books. “Though the NCAA huffs and puffs about rule-breakers” is much STRONGER than “Though the NCAA complains about” or “Though the NCAA talks about disciplining.” You can feel the frustration reach through your screen and slap you right in the face. Look just how CHILDISH this organization is acting. This isn’t just ANY take. Those other editorials are for wimps. This one is a DEATHDITORIAL.
  • Savvy use of quotation marks. Oh, I see what you did there, Anonymous Take Guy/Gal. They’re technically penalties, but they weren’t really penalties. Nice.
  • Letting us know you’re telling the truth. Self-explanatory, really.
  • Mockery. I can picture Mystery Author doing his/her impression of the NCAA and schools the NCAA is investigating and having a snarky laugh. You tell ’em, He/She Who Must Not Be Named.

So, besides the typical language you’d expect in a piece like this, I’ve got a problem with the premise of the opening paragraph. If lost scholarships, probation and postseason bans aren’t enough, then what is sufficient punishment? The NCAA can’t deal out the death penalty for every infraction. And the idea that these penalties “don’t amount to much” is laughable. Ask Syracuse fans how they felt about their basketball team not maki– oh, that wasn’t happening anyway? My bad, poor example. You get the idea, though.

Ohio State went undefeated in 2012 and didn’t even get to play in the Quick Lane Bowl, let alone the B1G Championship or the BCS Championship. That penalty potentially cost the Buckeyes a coveted ring (although they did go on to win the inaugural College Football Playoff two seasons later). Let’s move on from that opening paragraph and see what else our Unidentified Writing Object had to say.

“But in the case of perhaps the worst scandal in college sports history, the athletics-academics disgrace at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with “paper class” shenanigans dating back 20 years, the NCAA has itself a real problem. The organization has released its notice of allegations and has used the term “lack of institutional control” as pertaining to the UNC program. That’s supposedly one of the most serious accusations the NCAA can make. Now the university will respond, and sometime around March of next year the NCAA will determine sanctions, if any, against the athletics program.”

It’s hard to disagree with North Carolina’s scandal being one of the most egregious in NCAA history, but I’m not so sure about it being the absolute worst. That’s subjective, though. What isn’t subjective is that lack of institutional control isn’t “supposedly” one of the most serious accusations the NCAA can make; one quick Google search will reveal that it is in fact a Level I violation, considered a “severe breach of conduct.” By definition, it’s as serious of an allegation as the NCAA can make, no “supposedly” about it.

The other issue with this paragraph is the “if any” thrown into the last sentence. It’s a small, but significant, addition that implies that the N&O Halloween Phantom thinks the NCAA is going to let North Carolina completely off the hook. This is just more evidence that no punishment will be enough, which is a ridiculous point of view to have. In all likelihood the NCAA will punish North Carolina, some sports (sup, women’s basketball?) more than others. To be so mad nine months before these penalties are even announced is unhealthy, and it reveals that this goes far beyond wanting proper reform to come out of it.

“Those schools that have been punished in the past, losing face and money (no post-season bowl bonanzas, for example), are surely saying to the NCAA: You brought the hammer down on us for doing far less than the “Carolina Way” crowd did. So we are watching.”

Wait… Let’s flash back to the first paragraph, nay, the first SENTENCE:

“Though the NCAA huffs and puffs about rule-breakers, its “penalties” never have amounted to much”

So these penalties that have never amounted to much have suddenly shapeshifted into the NCAA bringing the hammer down. Maybe Raleigh Mysterio is saying that the schools feel they’ve had the hammer brought down on them, but that would then imply that the schools do care about the penalties, in direct contrast to what was written in that opening paragraph.

“Indeed, despite the university’s obfuscation and attempts to keep the lid on years of phony classes and academic advisers steering athletes to courses designed to keep them eligible but hardly to advance them toward a degree, this four-year saga has been and remains an embarrassment. The reporting of The News & Observer’s Dan Kane and a $3 million investigation by Washington attorney Kenneth Wainstein confirmed the worst, a long-running exploitation of athletes who were just that and not in fact “student-athletes” all universities talk about.”

It’s really the NCAA who does the big push for the term “student-athlete,” not the universities. And, maybe this is just me being a homer, but I think the Wainstein Report did a lot more to “confirm” what happened than Kane’s reporting did. That’s not to discredit Kane; he worked diligently to uncover the story, although his insistence on using Mary Willingham as a reliable source damages his credibility quite a bit, especially given the details in the Roy Williams segment of the Wainstein Report. And while yes, the university tried its hardest to cover the scandal up as it happened, it’s not like Wainstein was called in by a third party. North Carolina, in an attempt to find out how/why these fraudulent classes were created, brought in Wainstein.

The university’s response will be interesting. At this point, with Wainstein’s having confirmed virtually all of the reporting by Kane, UNC-CH surely won’t try to defend the indefensible.

But it may very well make an argument that has been made by other schools facing potential sanctions: Yes, there were problems, but all the people involved are gone. Why punish athletes who weren’t part of the problem or deny scholarships to those dreaming of college careers who now are in high school?

It’s quite true that in the course of UNC’s scandal, a chancellor left and an athletics director retired. And the athletes in those phony classes are no longer on campus. Yes, current Chancellor Carol Folt wasn’t ruling the roost while the scandal was in progress, and Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham wasn’t in charge.

But this great university had a shocking, inexcusable and almost institutionalized culture of exploitation going on that brought shame on the university’s reputation, and not just its athletics reputation.

Here’s the thing: Just because other universities have used that argument doesn’t make it invalid. The editorial board (yes, I finally ran out of Mystery Man/Woman jokes and can refer to it by its proper name now) is correct in pointing out that the chancellor and athletics director stepped down. Carol Folt and Bubba Cunningham have taken over those respective roles. Coaches and administrators have been fired. The players who benefited from the fraudulent classes have either graduated, gone pro, transferred or dropped out. It’s a new batch of students, athletes and administrators at North Carolina.  

My question is this: Can you properly punish the university itself while being fair to those who had nothing to do with past misconduct? Is it right for a person such as Marcus Paige, who has exemplified both on the court and in the class room what the NCAA feels a student-athlete should strive to be, to be deprived of a meaningful senior season? To say that it was an enormous scandal isn’t enough to justify the impact it would have on athletes such as Paige. It’s a complex issue, one that goes far beyond “well the university was wrong, so we have to throw the book at the people who are there now.”

“If the NCAA brings forth a weak-kneed punishment, its other members are going to react strongly and may even take the organization apart. But if it really comes down hard on UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s going to mess with a key ingredient of member schools of the Atlantic Coast Conference, for example, sharing in hundreds of millions of dollars over a multi-year period.

Money may, in fact, be a major factor in any determination of punishment. Universities enjoying the huge stadiums, the luxurious booster perks, the bowl trips, the television deals have made themselves prisoners of the dollar. Many new presidents have found out quickly that they can’t touch the athletics program at any schools because too much money is involved. The university’s “brand” is sold to apparel companies. Football and basketball teams become for some a university’s sole identity.”

I touched on this in my response to Patrick O’Neill’s op-ed, but it bears repeating: Money will have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the penalties the NCAA hands North Carolina. For one thing, the money, for both the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference, is already locked up. As ESPN Radio host Joe Ovies tweeted, ESPN’s television deal with the ACC won’t expire until the 2026-27 season, and the NCAA’s television deal with CBS is good through 2024 for a whopping $10.8 billion. No matter what happens with North Carolina, that is guaranteed money. It doesn’t go away, regardless of if North Carolina was to receive the death penalty or get off clean.

And as far as the university itself goes, North Carolina will continue to make money off of athletics. Again, not to go full-Rovell (never, ever go full-Rovell), the Tar Heels brand is strong. It is built off of loyal fans and alumni, successful athletics programs and popular alumni such as Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and Lawrence Taylor. Forbes ranked the Tar Heels as the fifth most valuable team in college basketball for a reason. People are willing to spend money to rep the Tar Heels even four years into the scandal, and it’s highly unlikely that penalties would change that.

Money is simply a built-in excuse to generate outrage over penalties that don’t even exist yet. It’s an excuse to say that the NCAA didn’t do enough to punish North Carolina. The NCAA and the ACC will not make any more or less money based on its North Carolina decision, and it’s illogical to think money will justify any sanctions placed.

“UNC-Chapel Hill is more, much more, than its athletics program, and the vast majority of alums know it. The question is whether the NCAA’s punishments will be a lesson, albeit a painful one, or merely a temporary slow-down on the way back to the status quo.”

The editorial board is right: North Carolina is an institution of higher learning before anything else, and a great one at that. As a student, I can confirm that the education and opportunities that the university has presented me have been greater than I imagined when I enrolled. I can also say that the paper class scandal has been an embarrassment for every former, current and prospective student at North Carolina. My issue with this ending is that the board implies that the “status quo” is a return to shady tactics to keep student athletes eligible, when reforms are being implemented to assure that this doesn’t happen again. It’s safe to say that the university has already learned its lesson, regardless of what comes from the NCAA.

So ends the second misguided opinion/editorial piece by the News & Observer in the past week. The themes have been consistent: North Carolina was wrong, and it should pay the harshest price possible, even if that means punishing people who had nothing to do with the academic misconduct. The NCAA will likely take it easy on the university anyway, because doing otherwise would leave money on the table. They are basically set-up pieces for the scathing “it isn’t enough” takes that will come after the NCAA penalizes North Carolina.

The biggest flaw in these columns is the failure to discuss the future. Believe it or not, the university will continue to operate after next March. Given the emphasis that both authors put on academics, it’s somewhat astonishing that they fail to even mention the work being done to assure that this doesn’t happen again. Instead, these pieces are written with the focus placed on, ironically, the athletic side of the scandal. It’s a shame, too, because a publication as popular as the News & Observer could spark intelligent, thought-provoking conversation about what North Carolina has done and should do to fix a broken system. Instead, the publication chooses to run pieces like O’Neill’s op-ed and Wednesday’s editorial, choosing to watch the athletics department burn.

The News & Observer is more, much more than a few misguided editorials, and the vast majority of readers know it. The question is whether the publication will use its platform to create constructive, albeit complex, conversation, or merely continue to produce the hot takes that have become the status quo.

Excerpts taken from News & Observer editorial “UNC-CH must address culture that led to NCAA charges.” Featured image courtesy of Adam May of Long Leaf Creative. For more info on Adam’s work, follow him on Twitter at @LongLeafCreativ or contact him at Special thanks to Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) and Richard Wilson (@rwwilmington) for the head’s up, and to Andy Bechtel (@andybechtel) for explaining what the hell an editorial board is to me. Other images from USA Today/For The Win.

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