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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A kick in the teeth to the UNC fan: Why vacating wins matters

Posted by on Wed, Sep 21, 2011 at 3:05 PM

UNC released its response to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations (NOA) on Monday, in advance of next month’s hearings with the NCAA in Indianapolis.

The short version of the story is that in eight of nine alleged violations, we can drop the term “alleged.” The university agrees with the NCAA’s findings of violations in every case save one, the NCAA’s charge that Carolina failed to monitor social networking sites adequately.

Carolina’s response surprised few who have followed the case closely, but the document still makes for interesting reading. UNC in several cases points to partially mitigating evidence, and points out that some of the violations are quite minor in scope. More importantly, the document repeatedly makes the case that the policies and procedures in place at the time of the violations were reasonable, though not perfect; and it stresses the extent of UNC’s cooperation with NCAA investigators throughout the long process.

That emphasis is important for a number of reasons: UNC presents itself in the document as an institution that has made a good faith effort to follow rules in the past, and that it is making good faith efforts now to correct problems that have emerged. Consequently, the document argues, the institutions should be spared crippling penalties.

The document also suggests that the violations were largely the result of individual actions, not institutional negligence. UNC did not tell Jennifer Wiley to offer unauthorized academic assistance to multiple players, Marvin Austin and others to take benefits from agents, or John Blake to receive undisclosed payments from an agent. The unstated subtext of the response is that many of the problems (Wiley is an exception) resulted from a culture of noncompliance within the football program under Butch Davis—a culture that the university can (implicitly) claim it has moved to change by changing head coaches.

Indeed, anyone who accepts the premise that the University of North Carolina was not going to permit a coach who oversaw a program that landed on probation to keep his job—and with Monday’s release and announced self-imposed penalties, UNC is now, in effect, on probation—will recognize that the university and the football program are indeed better off with Davis in the rear view mirror.

If Davis were still the coach, reaction to UNC’s response would have focused on the question of Davis’s status, and how UNC could continue to employ a coach who put the program on probation. Thorp would have been in almost indefensible position as an academic leader, and media coverage and questions at press conferences would have fixated on the scandal, not on the actual football team. With dismissing Davis mid-season essentially impossible, Carolina would have been caught in another season of uncertainty and turmoil.

To be sure, not all the questions have gone away, and Thorp has had to take a lot of heat. But UNC has succeeded in shifting the story line to a substantial degree—to the questions of who the next coach and the next AD will be, and also the question of how UNC will play in the next game. Interim head coach Everett Withers has overseen strong and at times impressive performances in the season’s first three weeks, and has demonstrated a welcome ability to keep his focus on the precious present. At 3-0, the Tar Heels are a team worth watching, and this could well turn out to be an interesting and enjoyable season—at least for those fans who are more interested in the present and future than in trying to vindicate Butch Davis.
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UNC’s proposed penalties are indeed modest: loss of three scholarships for three years, two years’ probation, and vacating sixteen wins from the 2008 and 2009 season. If the NCAA does not impose additional penalties, UNC football fans should feel considerable relief. Likewise, the university administration’s strategy of total cooperation with the NCAA would be largely vindicated. Such a conclusion is premature of course, but unless the NCAA uncovers more problems or fundamentally rejects the way Carolina has portrayed the violations (as a matter of individual actions, not institutional negligence), it’s difficult to see how or why the NCAA would impose drastically harsher penalties.

That said, to me it’s quite puzzling that many Carolina fans (and others) act as if agreeing to forfeit past victories is no big deal. Take the 2008 season. Buying wholesale into the Butch Davis promise, I followed that team closely. I counted my attendance at the Tar Heels’ win over Notre Dame in Kenan as an all-time fan highlight—a close win in a packed stadium on a beautiful fall day against a legendary opponent. Later I followed the team to Charlottesville and College Park as it (vainly) pursued a Coastal Division title and witnessed two bitter losses.

Now with that entire season being vacated, my investment in following that team—trivial of course, compared to the investment of the participants themselves—is officially all for naught.

That is difficult to accept for someone with a lifetime habit of marking time and marking years by the performance of Tar Heel teams. That Carolina didn’t win the ACC or all the games I went to doesn’t matter—they were part of the process of being a fan, central to which is investing in the hope (however deluded!) one will see something and hence feel a part of something special.

When one instead witnesses failures and disappointments, they can be (and are) rationalized as paying dues, and as making ultimate success all the sweeter. No serious Boston Red Sox fan would want to vacate the 1986 World Series or erase from the history books Bill Buckner and all that. That disastrous moment is part of the collective memory of the fan base and helped make the 2004 World Series victory even more treasured.

Being a fan of a sports team over a long period of time is all about memory—personal memories, and shared memories. Most college sports fans are attached to a single school over a period of decades, or even their entire lives. Vacating games is thus worse than simply a university admitting it used ineligible players (and hence in a sense engaged in a kind of fraud); it also involves retrospectively devaluing the memories, accomplishments and failures of those seasons.

When Notre Dame moved the ball on its final drive deep in Carolina territory for a potential game-winning score in that October 2008 game, I believed that it was important that Carolina get that stop, and that winning that game would mark a special moment in Tar Heel history. It felt that way at the time, but now the university has informed me that I was wrong—it didn’t matter.

That’s no trivial penalty—it’s a kick in the teeth, a kick to make the lifelong fan’s blood run cold. What’s worse, I fear it’s a kick that will make it harder to suspend disbelief and act like these ballgames we get so wrapped up in actually matter. Without that sense of magic, being a fan is hardly any fun at all.

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