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UNC academic case finally reaches NCAA infractions hearing

(AP Photo/File)

By AARON BEARD

AP Sports Writer

More than two years after first being charged with five top-level violations, North Carolina finally appeared Wednesday before an NCAA infractions committee panel amid its long-running academic scandal.

School representatives - including chancellor Carol Folt, athletic director Bubba Cunningham and men's basketball coach Roy Williams - spent nearly all day in a closed-door hearing to start a two-day session in Nashville, Tennessee, before wrapping up in the evening.

In an email to The Associated Press, NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said the hearing would resume Thursday morning but declined additional comment. UNC officials who attended the hearing left without stopping to speak to reporters waiting outside the room in the Nashville hotel.

The panel will ultimately determine whether the school could face penalties that include fines, probation or vacated wins and championships. The panel, which would typically issues a ruling weeks to months after a hearing, is chaired by Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The hearing is a major step toward resolution in an oft-delayed case filled with starts, stops and twice-rewritten charges.

"The hearing stage, no matter what size of a case, it's a big deal to any university," said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. "I've been a part of what you'd consider small cases, I've been a part of one of the largest cases. And trust me: The client feels the same anxiousness and apprehension no matter what size of a case it is.

"But I can definitely imagine with North Carolina, this is definitely a momentous occasion."

The charges include lack of institutional control in a case tied to irregular courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The case is an offshoot of a 2010 football probe, with the NCAA reopening an investigation in summer 2014, filing charges in May 2015, revising them in April 2016 and then again in December.

UNC's representatives at the hearing included football coach Larry Fedora and women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. Jan Boxill and Deborah Crowder, two former UNC employees charged individually in the case, also attended with their attorneys.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men's basketball are referenced in a broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women's basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor providing improper assistance on assignments.

Fedora wasn't working at UNC during the time in question.

"There's nothing that I can add to what happened before I ever got here," Fedora said last week. "But I'm there for support. I think me being there is important - not only for the NCAA but the university - that it shows compliance is important to me and our program."

The focus is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn't meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades. In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

UNC has challenged the NCAA's jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency - which sanctioned the school with a year of probation - was the proper authority. In a May filing , the school stated it "fundamentally believes that the matters at issue here were of an academic nature" and don't involve NCAA bylaws.

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: "The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA's business."

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn't receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein's estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

Updated August 16, 2017

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