College students are only now starting to report for the new school year, and the first serious athletic competitions are a few weeks away.
But the scene is set for one of the biggest showdowns in college sports history between the NCAA and one of its highest profile member schools.
The outcome may go a long way to defining what a student-athlete is as well as determine whether the organization that governs college athletics can, in fact, play a role in academics.
At issue is a long-standing case involving the University of North Carolina and allegations of massive academic fraud dating back almost a quarter-century.
The school has admitted that, since 1993, more than 3,000 students took African-American or African studies classes that did not require attendance and only mandated that a student write one paper.
Nearly half the students enrolled in the class were athletes, mostly in the football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball programs and it’s alleged that counselors funneled athletes into the easier courses.
The NCAA has already investigated North Carolina twice and handed down mild penalties, admitting that there were no violations of NCAA rules.
However, as the case has unfolded, with more allegations of fraud, the NCAA issued a third notice of investigation last December with officials from the two sides meeting last week for two days in Nashville.
Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that the NCAA could not control the number of times that schools appear on college football telecasts, the Indianapolis-based organization has seen its once vice-like grip on college sports loosened considerably.
But it was Walter Byers, the late former executive director of the NCAA who created the term student-athlete in the 1950’s. All these years later, the folks who run the NCAA still believe themselves to be the arbiter of college athletics.
The NCAA has recently thrown the book at Louisville, whose men’s basketball program was emmeshed in a scandal where former assistant coaches used naked women to entice recruits.
And it’s reportedly prepared to drop a safe on the University of Mississippi over reports that football coaches gave impermissible gifts to players.
But North Carolina is challenging the NCAA’s authority to exercise authority over academic issues. The school maintains that the NCAA had no applicable bylaw that governed academics when the violations occurred.
The “Yeah, we did it, but you don’t have the standing to punish us’ defense is weasel-like, but there are some who believe it may work.
North Carolina officials are also contending that they are victims of a pack-mentality from other schools eager to see the Tar Heels receive what they believe to be just desserts.
In their view, North Carolina has presented itself as a prestigious institution, but has hands that are just as dirty as the rest.
Indeed, Maryland president Wallace Loh opined in May that North Carolina should receive the so-called death penalty, the shuttering of one of the programs for a period of time, if found guilty.
You can bet that if the NCAA imposes any sanctions, the next showdown won’t be in a gym or a football field, but in a court of law with the outcome having a deeper meaning than any game.
And that’s how I see it for this week.