By Paul Newberry
AP Sports Columnist
In case you missed it during this week devoted to indigestion and brawling during Black Friday over that toy your child just has to have, the NCAA dropped the hammer on Notre Dame for academic shenanigans that occurred in its once-storied football program.
It was an all-too-familiar lapse in the charade of professional sports franchises operating within our institutions of higher learning: a student trainer handled the schoolwork for several football players who couldn’t be bothered with doing it themselves, which led to the Fighting Irish being stripped of two seasons worth of wins.
The NCAA delivered a relatively swift punishment that, frankly, appeared a bit too harsh. Notre Dame acknowledged that rules were broken and cooperated in the investigation. There was no indication that the higher-ups were aware of what was going on.
But we’re not here to cry for the Fighting Irish.
We’re more concerned about another case.
Remember North Carolina? The Tar Heels have been mired in a massive academic fraud scandal going back more than two decades that has led to five NCAA charges, a corruption scandal far more troubling and far-reaching than the substitute schoolwork that went on at Notre Dame. Heck, what the Irish did sounds downright quaint by comparison.
Yet, the NCAA has still not levied any punishment on Tobacco Road, allowing the case to devolve into a legal mumbo-jumbo that seems to be sending a clear message to future rule-breakers: it’s best to delay, delay and delay some more.
It’s now been more than six years since the NCAA first arrived in Chapel Hill to investigate allegations of improper benefits and academic misconduct within the football program.
That led to the uncovering of something even worse: sham courses within a department devoted to African-American studies, which were really nothing more than a conduit for athletes to pick up an easy “A” without being burdened with going to class or doing much in the way of actual schoolwork.
An independent investigation by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein found that some 3,100 students — roughly half of them athletes from numerous sports — took bogus courses between 1993 and 2011. At least one prominent former basketball player has come forward to say he was caught up in the scam: Rashad McCants, who helped lead the Tar Heels to the 2005 national championship.
Despite a massive body of evidence, North Carolina has yet to face any sort of justice.
Instead, this has become the worst episode of “Law & Order” ever.
The NCAA leveled its initial set of charges, including the dreaded “lack of institutional control.” The school had 90 days to respond, and went right up to the deadline before sending along additional information for the NCAA to review. That led to an amended set of charges, with the most serious allegations still in there. The school responded again, this time with a bunch of procedural arguments that most notably challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction in the case. That led to another hearing, lots of sniping back and forth by the attorneys, and … well, you get the idea. To get a true glimpse into what this case has become, check here .
Clearly, there’s no end in sight for this convoluted mess.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is already preparing to appeal the sanctions the NCAA handed down on Tuesday, which included stripping the school of all 21 wins it had during the 2012 and ‘13 seasons. That wiped out the Fighting Irish’s best showing since the 1980s — a 12-0 regular season and No. 1 ranking before a humiliating 42-14 loss to Alabama in the national championship game. It was another tough blow for the current team, which has endured a 4-7 season heading into Saturday’s finale against Southern Cal and faces questions about the future of coach Brian Kelly.
“It’s just a couple of guys made a mistake, and the whole team goes down with it,” said offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, a team captain. “We know we won the games. They’re not going to take that away from us. They can take it away in the record books all they want, but we won the games.”
The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, called it unprecedented to strip a school of wins “without serious underlying institutional misconduct.” He said the NCAA’s ruling wouldn’t “punish those responsible for the misconduct, but rather will punish coaches, student-athletes and indeed the entire institution who did nothing wrong and, with regard to this case, did everything right.”
If the folks at Notre Dame sound a bit frustrated, they have every right to be.
They’ve felt the wrath of the NCAA, while the Tar Heels remain on the lam.
What a travesty.