The University of North Carolina remains steadfast in its belief that the NCAA is overreaching in its investigation of the school's long-running academic fraud case.
In a 102-page response to a third set of charges, North Carolina on Thursday once again challenged the Indianapolis-based NCAA's jurisdiction to pursue charges for issues the school states "are academic in nature" and "lie beyond the reach of the bylaws belatedly invoked" by the NCAA. The school's argument mirrors the position it took last August to a previous NCAA Notice of Allegations.
"The fundamental issue in our case is that the NCAA bylaws cover athletics matters, not how academics are managed," athletic director Bubba Cunningham said on a conference call following the release of UNC's response. "Our reply to each allegation is based on the NCAA's constitution and member-adopted bylaws. We expect the committee on infractions to consistently apply these bylaws as the case moves forward."
The NCAA has said in the past that UNC's argument is "without merit."
Thursday's response is the latest step in the seven-year investigation. UNC faces five top-level charges, including lack of institutional control, in the extensive probe centered on irregular courses in an academic department.
The NCAA enforcement staff has until July 17 to file a response. Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, who heads the NCAA infractions panel handling the case, has said his panel will hear the case in August with "anticipated" dates of Aug. 16 and 17. The case could reach a resolution by the end of 2017.
The major development in the case before UNC's response came two weeks ago, when a woman at the center of the investigation—Deborah Crowder—was interviewed by investigators after previously declining to cooperate. Crowder, a retired office administrator who graded many of the papers in the problem classes, also filed an affidavit in March defending the quality of the courses.
North Carolina stated it will file a supplemental response to Thursday's documents to include specific references to Crowder's testimony once it receives the official transcript of her interview from the NCAA.
The school repeated its stance that the NCAA's constitution and bylaws apply to "basic athletics issues" and don't extend to matters of academic structure, content and process on campus. UNC blames those issues on "the result of inadequate academic oversight unrelated to" the athletic department and says it has implemented 70 reforms to prevent recurrences.
"In a global sense," Cunningham said, UNC's response "is consistent with what our position has been from the very beginning."
The school also stated that the NCAA was inconsistent by not alleging any violations for what UNC described as similar situations with classes at Auburn in 2006 and Michigan in 2008.
When similar issues of overreach were raised by UNC in August 2016, the NCAA responded that the argument was "without merit."
In a statement provided by NCAA spokeswoman Emily James, the committee on infractions declined to comment on the ongoing case except to say it will consider "the full record when determining the facts of the case—not by media reports or select documents included in filings released by one party."
The school also disagreed with some statistics in a 2014 investigation by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein into irregularities in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies, or AFAM, department. His report estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes across numerous sports accounting for roughly half the enrollments in the problem courses.
UNC argued that the Wainstein report counted as student-athletes some students who no longer were members of a sports team when they took the course, disagreeing with what it called a "once an athlete, always an athlete" approach.
The school's response did not include any self-imposed sanctions, and it also made no mention of Sankey.
Raleigh attorney Elliot Abrams, who represents Crowder, had written a letter seeking the removal of Sankey as head of the NCAA infractions panel because of a conflict of interest. In his response last month, Sankey denied the request, saying the panel would "fairly decide this case."
In December, UNC received a set of revamped charges against the university — leading some school officials to openly question the fairness of the process. The NCAA charged the school with providing improper extra benefits after withdrawing a similar charge from last spring — rewording the charge that had been removed from the first version filed in May 2015 centering on athletes' access to irregular courses.
The focus of the case is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn't meet and required a research paper or two in the AFAM department. They featured significant athlete enrollments and typically high grades.
The case is an offshoot of a 2010 probe into the football program. The NCAA reopened its investigation in summer 2014, filed charges in May 2015, revised them last April and again in December.