It's hard for the casual college basketball fan to understand the laws that cause the NCAA to make certain rulings. Jay Bilas helps us break it down.
Above: Former Duke basketball player Jay Bilas has long criticized the NCAA. Photo from the Charlotte Observer.
On Oct. 13, the NCAA announced that its Committee on Infractions could not conclude that North Carolina violated NCAA rules during the university’s 18-year-long academic scandal.
That same day, the NCAA ruled N.C. State freshman guard Braxton Beverly ineligible for the 2017-18 season. Beverly originally committed to Ohio State in Oct. 2016, and began taking summer classes there in mid May. After former head coach Thad Matta was fired over the summer, Beverly decommitted from Ohio State and committed to N.C. State. According to NCAA rules, Beverly is considered a transfer, since he took classes at another university. Which means he has to sit out this season. N.C. State and Beverly appealed the NCAA’s decision, but were denied on Oct. 30. Beverly released a personal statement regarding the situation just a week ago.
Many N.C. State fans call the NCAA corrupt because of the fact that the UNC men’s basketball program didn’t get punished for having its athletes enrolled in “paper classes,” while a N.C. State player is essentially getting punished for taking a summer class. It is generally difficult for the casual college basketball fan to understand the laws that cause the NCAA to make certain rulings.
To help break down both cases, I chatted with ESPN college basketball analyst and attorney Jay Bilas.
Parth Upadhyaya: I know you’ve been saying this since day one, but the NCAA eventually seemed to realize that it couldn’t penalize UNC because the AFAM courses benefitted the entire student body, not just the student-athletes. Was there more than just that reason for not punishing the UNC men’s basketball program?
Jay Bilas: Not really. I think you have to look overall at the rules. Years ago, the presidents [of universities] basically told the NCAA, ‘Stay out of our curriculum. You have no business in our academic rigor and what is legit and what’s not, and how we confer degrees and the like.’ What happened at North Carolina is not academic fraud under the rules. While there was an interesting narrative by a lot of people, including the Committee on Infractions saying that ‘Well, North Carolina changed their defense.’ That’s totally untrue and disingenuous to say that. North Carolina was not charged with academic fraud. They could’ve walked into the hearing and said, ‘Hey, we committed academic fraud,’ and it wouldn’t have made any difference. They weren’t charged with academic fraud. They were charged with extra benefits. An extra benefit is something that is not generally available to the regular student population. These classes were not only generally available, they were specifically available.
Parth Upadhyaya: Speaking of those same rules, do you think there needs to be a change in the NCAA’s rulebook and what would those changes look like?
Jay Bilas: I don’t. I think the NCAA needs to get out of academics altogether. They’re totally ineffective. They have no business in it. Pretending that they can manage that has been nothing but a fiasco for the NCAA. There’s a pretty darn good reason why the presidents told the NCAA to stay out of their academics, and the way they teach courses and offer courses. That’s because the NCAA is an athletic organization. They cannot effectively do that. How would they compare what is taught at Harvard and what is taught at Memphis, and whether they both pass academic muster? That’s up to accreditation services, and the NCAA really has no business there. Just as I wouldn’t expect the NCAA to oversee the running of university hospitals and if they’re handling hospital cleanliness the right way. Should the NCAA oversee food service on campuses? We would all go, ‘Well, that’s dumb. Why would they do that?’ It’s an athletic organization. The academic side has nothing to do with sports.
Parth Upadhyaya: How would you explain the UNC ruling to an irrational N.C. State or Duke fan that thinks this is unfair and that North Carolina got away with 18 years of academic fraud?
Jay Bilas: I just did. I don’t feel like you have to explain it to reasonable people. Usually, the fact that [the NCAA rules] are so Byzantine and difficult for most people to understand mitigates in the NCAA’s favor. This time it went against the NCAA. They talk a good game. But their rules didn’t cover this, and they never have. The biggest mistake the NCAA made was bringing the case in the first place. [They could have] just said at the very beginning, ‘Hey look, we find this reprehensible, but the rules don’t cover it. If you want to change the rules, then have at it.’ But it was really sort of irresponsible of the Committee on Infractions to bring this case when anybody who knows the rules could tell from the beginning that they had no case. When you’re saying, ‘What would I say to fans?’ — fans don’t understand this stuff. How does a fan explain that [UNC was] never charged with academic fraud or academic misconduct? Why were they not charged with academic misconduct? It’s pretty simple — the rules don’t allow it.
Parth Upadhyaya: Now my question is, what’s stopping other programs from finding the same loophole North Carolina did? Couldn’t other schools now also set up “paper classes” for athletes?
Jay Bilas: It’s not a loophole. It’s a rule. There’s nothing stopping anyone from doing it. So, if [universities] want to have classes that are ridiculously easy, go ahead. What’s to stop them? Nothing. Nothing’s ever been able to stop [universities], and you can have classes as hard or as easy as you want. So, the idea that we should be comparing rigor is a fool’s errand. I can find easy classes anywhere, and I can find hard classes anywhere. The truth is, I can find classes that don’t have tests or papers on every campus. People say, ‘Well, North Carolina was perpetrating 18 years of academic fraud to keep athletes eligible and every athlete at [UNC’s] degrees don’t mean anything.’ That’s a gross overstatement. They had one department that had several people in it that were not doing things — in what I would consider — the right fashion. But that was not an athletic problem. That was an academic issue.
Jay Bilas: Because the rules didn’t apply. And because the NCAA, back then, had not staked their reputation on academic integrity. The NCAA had been taking so many gut punches on the mistakes it was making. They were taking so many gut punches on amateurism, getting sued over this and sued over that, and losing. [The NCAA was] losing ground to [the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit], then the Penn State fiasco happened and all kinds of things. They tried to carve out academic integrity as the flag they were going to carry. Who could argue with academic integrity? Nobody would argue with it. They had a case where it violated everybody’s sensibilities and nobody liked it, but it didn’t violate the rules. There’s a reason that most people don’t know about Michigan in 2008 and Auburn just before that. And the reason they don’t know about it is because the NCAA didn’t bring a case. The NCAA made [the UNC case] a national and international matter by bringing the charge. For them to do that when they had no chance of winning made everybody look stupid. But it made them look dumber and stupider than anybody. And honestly, that’s a distinction that they’ve earned.
Parth Upadhyaya: Now to talk about the N.C. State and Braxton Beverly case — what do you believe is stopping the NCAA from making an exception for this situation? Shouldn’t an exception be made, given Matta’s firing?
Jay Bilas: Well, yeah. I thought they would do it in the appeal process. A lot times what happens with the NCAA and these type of cases is they will go strict letter of the law on the case, and in the appeal, they reach ultimately the right result. I think that’s a dumb way to go about things. I don’t see why you add all these extra layers to let somebody do something that you should in the first place. Especially at this time with the NCAA — why take that PR hit for someone who is clearly a good student and a good kid and didn’t do anything wrong? What are they fearing? That people are going to enroll in summer school all over the country and leave? It’s not a recurring problem. The NCAA — they’re good people and they’re well-intentioned, but they’re tone deaf and they don’t get it. We see these things over and over and over again. We’ve had sort of the same problems, basically for 100 years. You have sort of the juxtaposition of people thinking — whether it’s mistaken or otherwise — that North Carolina got away with something. Then you have a player who enrolls in class and is kept from playing because he enrolled in class. So he’s going to be going to school and he’ll graduate, then he’ll still have eligibility when he graduates? Like, why would they want a 24-year-old man playing in college when he can play right away?
Parth Upadhyaya: N.C. State and Beverly already put in one appeal and got denied. Is there still time for the NCAA to overturn this decision?
Jay Bilas: No, that pretty much ends it. I think the only thing for Beverly to do would be to get a lawyer and try to put pressure on the system that way. But that’s going to be time consuming and somewhat expensive. And I don’t know if that would necessarily be successful, because the courts don’t like to get involved in this stuff. Unless the NCAA were violating their own policies and applying rules they usually wouldn’t, the courts wouldn’t weigh into this. It’s another, sort of, contradiction in the way the NCAA talks. But they act in a different fashion and wind up doing something that’s detrimental to the welfare of a player. It’s really unfortunate, it’s unseemly, and frankly, I think it’s wrong. But you’re not going to talk them out of it. They’re going to hold fast to their rules, no matter how unfairly they’re applied. You would think that the president of the NCAA could step forward and say, ‘Okay, no. I’m vetoing this and this player is eligible.’ But they don’t do that.
Parth Upadhyaya: Same question as the one I had with the UNC ruling — can this rule be changed? Or at least will there be an asterisk next to the rule saying if something like this happens, where a head coach gets fired, a player can leave without consequence?
Jay Bilas: Well, we’ve been asking that question for 30 years. I asked that question when I was a member of the NCAA long-range planning committee in the mid-80s, when I was a player-representative on the committee. And I was shot down then. I’m sure I wasn’t the first one to raise that as an issue. It’s been shot down ever since. We still have the same antiquated transfer rules. I think those things probably will change going forward. Because the NCAA, I do think, realizes that the longer they hang on to these transfer rules, the more the players are going to be considered employees. But I don’t see anyway, where once a player is enrolled that [he/she can easily leave]. As crazy as it sounds, they’re not going to let go of that anytime soon.
Parth Upadhyaya: Given that that rule probably won’t change in the near future — what advice would you give incoming freshmen who might think twice before taking summer classes, if their coach’s seat is even slightly warm?
Jay Bilas: I wouldn’t worry about it. I don’t think you can make those decisions based upon fear of what’s going to happen. If I were in the same position when I came out in the early ’80s – look, I knew where I wanted to go to school. When I made my decision, I was living comfortable with it. Coach K at that time — this seems hard to imagine — was on a little bit of shaky ground. That sounds crazy to think about that. But I would not sign a letter of intent if I were ranked and in the same position. I would sign scholarship papers, but I wouldn’t sign a letter of intent. Most players don’t feel like they can do that. I do feel like they have enough leverage to where they can turn that letter of intent down and just sign scholarship papers. But I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If your circumstances change and you feel like you have to leave, sitting out isn’t the worst thing in the world. I would rather trust my decision than hedge every decision I make. But reasonable minds can differ on that. I think you raised a fair point, though. The NCAA wants to make it seem like every decision is made based upon the school, and hardly any of them are. Most of the decisions are made based upon the coach, with the school being a factor.
Parth Upadhyaya: I saw you quote-tweeted Beverly’s personal statement, and we all saw Gary Parrish (CBS Sports) leak Thad Matta’s letter to the NCAA. Typically, are these kind of statements — when made public — effective in pushing the NCAA?
Jay Bilas: No. They’re effective in dealing with schools. So, if Beverly were still at Ohio State and Ohio State wouldn’t release him — I think the negative publicity would weigh on the school. The NCAA doesn’t care. They take so many hits all the time, that they’re immune to it. They don’t care. When I say they don’t care, I’m not saying they don’t care about the student-athlete. I think they do care about the players, but they care more about themselves and their rules. They will not allow their rules to be compromised, even though it has a really negative impact on a player. They definitely do not care about that. They will do anything for their rules and their autonomy and their ability to enforce their rules, even if it hurts individuals.