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Should UNC Get the Death Penalty?

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Hey, UB has a quasi-bye week! Why not see what else is going on in college football? Tim takes a look at the long-ongoing UNC academic scandal.

Every so often something happens which brings out howls for the NCAA "death penalty". The fact is, though, that the NCAA's big gun has only been used three times in Division One athletics and in those instances it seemed more about the repeated violations of a football power rather than the particular infraction. So it seems the NCAA is more concerned about an institution challenging it's "authoritah" than the severity of the crime.

First, if you don't know, the NCAA death penalty does not actually kill a program or even boot an institution out of the NCAA. "Death Penalty" is the term for the National Collegiate Athletic Association's power to ban a school from competing in a sport for at least one year.

SMU UNC
Years 1983-1985 1993 - 2011
Length 3 18
Type Payments Academics
Institutional Yes Yes
Sports Football All
Students 13 1,871
Dept Aware yes yes
Repeated yes no

To get an idea of just how massive the case for the death penalty at UNC is let's take a look at it versus the actions of Southern Methodist University which led to its famous death penalty back in the 80's.

We're going to be contrasting and comparing two scandals 25 years apart so here is a quick primer on who SMU was, what they did, and what that meant for the program.

The SMU Mustangs won the 1935 national championship, 10 Southwest Conference titles, and had attended 11 bowl games. They also had numerous All-Americans including Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker in 1949.

Their best modern four-year stint of football came from from 1980 to 1984. During that span they posted a record of 49-9-1 and won three Southwest Conference titles. They nearly won their second national title in 1982 but came up short because of a tie to Arkansas.

But SMU, like many SWAC teams, was fraught with corruption. During the seventies and eighties there was a point where five of the conference's nine member schools were on some form of probation. During that era SMU was dirtier than most. The Mustangs were placed on probation five times between 1974 and 1985, and had been slapped with probation seven times overall—more than any other school.

In 1984 the wheels really started coming off when Sean Stopperich let it out that he was paid to drop his verbal to Pitt and to attend SMU. Other players followed. Eventually, the NCAA investigation revealed that in 1985 and 1986, 13 players had been paid a total of $61,000 from a slush fund provided by a booster. Payments ranged from $50 to $725 per month and had started only a month after SMU had been handed its latest probation.

That was the straw that broke the camel's back and SMU was told no football for a season, and then all home games the next year were cancelled. Rather than play a half season with no home games SMU extend the ban to two seasons.

Since the the NCAA "killed" SMU football in 1987 there have been 31 schools which have committed two major violations within a five-year period. Only three times among them has the NCAA has seriously considered shutting down a Division I sport: Kentucky men's basketball in 1989, Penn State football in 2012, and Texas Southern University football and men's basketball in 2012. In none of these instances has the NCAA pulled the trigger.

During most of that 27 year window UNC has been skating under the radar. Silently committing serious academic fraud in the name of keeping "student" athletes on the field. UNC is a middling ACC football program with good basketball. The Tar Heels have had a shadow curriculum in which athletes and some other students took classes which had no attendance requirement, no test, and a single paper which was usually rubber stamped with an A no matter how bad it was.

This started to emerge in 2010 when an NCAA investigation found that a tutor had completed coursework for several football players, among other improper services. As an aside the investigation also found that seven football players received thousands of dollars in valuables from sports agents or people associated with agents. The NCAA sanctions led to a postseason ban, reduction of 15 scholarships, and 3 years of probation.

But things were a lot worse than anyone knew. As stated above while folks were focused on tutors doing real school work there was a whole lot of fake school work going on.

Over the 18 years these classes existed, Crowder and Nyang'oro were responsible for offering 188 different lecture classes as well as hundreds of individual independent studies in the "paper class" format - with no class attendance or faculty involvement, and with Crowder managing the class and liberally grading the papers. Through this scheme, over 3,100 students received one or more semesters of deficient instruction and were awarded high grades that often had little relationship to the quality of their work.

Make no mistake this is not just a black eye for one program, or even just the athletics department. These courses were used by many students. Their existence and popularity have unfairly undercut the idea of UNC as a solid academic institution.

The 3,000 shadow students is a small fraction of all kids getting their degrees at UNC but right now it's where everyone is focusing.

The paper below garnered an A- for a UNC football player.

Perhaps the most damning of all for the athletics department is that there are emails proving that athletic counselors were aware of, and complicit in this fraud.

A football operations coordinator received an email from Cynthia Reynolds, the Associate Director for ASPSA and Director of Football. In the mail it stated that Crowder was retiring at the end of July and a new regime might not pad the grades of football players high enough to meet academic requirements. The football counselors were painfully aware that many of their charges would not get the grades they "need" to remain eligible if someone other than Crowder graded their papers and were trying to find a way to make sure that did not happen.

So here are the key difference between the two scandals.

SMU's was about putting cash in players pockets while UNC's was about putting A's on their report cards. While some of the UNC kids also received benefits and contact with sports agents the main thrust of the problems at UNC has been a corruption of the education they received.

The other is that SMU was a repeat offender where is UNC was just caught "once". To me that's a distinction without a difference. A kid born on the day when the first paper A was given could have been receiving them at the time the schools actions came to light. No way should 18 years of institutional corruption count as "a single infraction".

My take: Will UNC get the death penalty for their activities? probably not. Should they? You bet your sweet Tar Heel tobacco! What do you think?