Perhaps 2014 will mark a turning point for Carolina Athletics, which has been in almost constant turmoil since the summer of 2010 and caused immeasurable damage to the University’s reputation.
Aside from the football program serving out the balance of a three-year NCAA probation, there appears to be no more reason for the governing body of college sports to be back on campus. Let it stay that way.
It must be said, up front, that about 98 percent of the more than 750 scholarship athletes at Carolina have continued to embrace the oft-maligned label of student-athlete. Most varsity Tar Heels are excelling on the fields and courts and passing in the classroom. Unfortunately, only a handful have hurt the entire program.
P.J. Hairston’s permanent ban from playing Carolina Basketball is the latest and, with UNC announcing it will not seek reinstatement for the junior guard and the team’s leading scorer last season, it means that Hairston’s mistakes rank up there with those of Marvin Austin, Greg Little and Robert Quinn, three football players who accepted enough impermissible benefits to end their college careers, as well.
That was the beginning, in 2010. Hopefully, this is the end.
Being in the same boat with a scandal-ridden football team must toast Roy Williams as much as anything. In 2003, he inherited what was built by Dean Smith into a model program and had established a 50-year paradigm of doing things the right way. An occasional basketball player has broken a minor rule (i.e., Raymond Felton was suspended for one game in 2004 for playing in an unsanctioned summer league game).
And after the highly publicized transgressions of the football players, it is hard to fathom that members of the school’s marquee athletic team would go within a mile of accepting an illegal benefit. But Leslie McDonald did it to the point of missing nine games and having to pay his favorite charity almost $1,800. Hairston, apparently, is a much worse case.
The NCAA’s interpretation of what P.J. accepted may have exceeded any amount that could be paid back, essentially saying Hairston took enough to no longer be deemed an amateur by NCAA standards. Plus, there are widespread reports that Hairston was not initially truthful with his coach, school and investigators, which is even a worse offense in the eyes of the NCAA.
That may have contributed to why he did not receive a lesser penalty of suspension for the entire season with the possibility of having his playing eligibility reinstated for 2014-15.
How could any athlete with such a bright future be so stupid, you might be asking.
Another question may be why Roy Williams, who admitted being madder than a rattle snake at Hairston over the summer, did not just boot him off the team, which might have spared some of the details of what Hairston did being so public.
The answer to the first question is unknown. There have been plenty of cases, some far worse than Hairston, where athletes who had everything wound up with nothing or even in jail. Perhaps P.J. can reinvent his basketball career somewhere and fulfill his lifetime dream of playing in the NBA.
The answer to the second question is easy, if you are a student of Carolina Basketball and its rich history under Smith. When a player signs a basketball scholarship at UNC, he becomes part of the fabled Carolina Basketball Family. To my knowledge, no one has ever been thrown out of the program.
“You still love your children,” said Williams, a Smith disciple, at an emotional press conference Friday afternoon.
Playing Carolina Basketball means being treated like any child from a stable family. If he screws up, he receives a penalty that fits the crime. But, like you wouldn’t toss your child onto the street, he is never thrown out on his ear.
Kevin Madden is a good example. In the fall of 1986, a fed-up Smith called Madden into his office and told him he was not playing basketball the coming season and had two choices. One was to stay at UNC and in the program, practice with the team and take a red-shirt year while he got his grades and class attendance to where they needed to be. The other was that Smith would help him pick another school where he could transfer. Either way, he wasn’t playing major college basketball that season. (Madden elected to stay, restored his academics and rejoined the active roster, eventually making the All-ACC team.)
Many players have left the Carolina basketball team over the years – all for reasons beyond the head coach’s control. They could have transferred (think the Wear twins). They could have violated a university policy or been charged with a felony or, in Hairston’s case, broke too many NCAA rules. All of those cannot be influenced otherwise by the head coach. That’s why Williams is so bitterly disappointed that he won’t be able to help Hairston as a member of his team. As Smith did for decades, Williams will do anything he can to place Hairston at a non-NCAA school, get him a contract to play in Europe or land him a free agent try-out with the many UNC-connected coaches and general managers in the NBA.
Williams said, “We’ve got to move on.” But he added, “My caring about that young man will never stop.”
That kind of philosophy gave Carolina one of the premier, most revered, athletic departments in the country. Maybe in 2014, it will begin to turn back in that direction.