It was once said that the National Collegiate Athletic Association avoided punishing its most visible sports programs, preferring to beat up on Little Sisters of the Poor University. While that accusation always made association officials bristle, they might be yearning for those days about now, as another in a series of high-profile sports programs was punished for serious rules violations Monday in the group's season of discontent.
Following on the heels of the NCAA's spanking of Ohio State University's football program in December -- and with cases pending involving the University of Miami and possibly Penn State University -- the Division I Committee on Infractions on Monday barred the football team  at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from postseason play next fall and stripped it of a total of 15 scholarships over three years, among other penalties.
The panel cited the Tar Heel football program for violating some of the association's most serious rules, including academic fraud (a former tutor producing "significant parts of writing assignments" for players), illicit payments to athletes (by the former tutor and sports agents), and unethical conduct (by a former assistant coach who took money from a sports agency and helped it sign some of the university's athletes as clients, threatening their eligibility).
NCAA officials suggested that the penalties could have been worse if the university had not been so aggressive in investigating the allegations upon first learning about them in 2010, and if North Carolina had not had a strong record of rules prevention. "The institution had educated its tutors regarding academic improprieties and its coaches regarding outside athletically related income," the infractions panel wrote in its public report. 
"It self-discovered the academic fraud and took decisive action when the former assistant coach's violations came to light. It cooperated fully, is not a repeat violator and, although there is a finding of failure to monitor, the institution exhibited appropriate control over its athletics program."
North Carolina officials said  they were surprised and disappointed by the penalties the NCAA infractions panel added to those the university self-imposed last fall. “We approached this investigation the way that you would expect of Carolina -- thoughtfully, thoroughly and with full cooperation -- and that was the right thing to do,” said Chancellor Holden Thorp. “We self-imposed a number of penalties in the fall that we thought were appropriate based on the facts in our case. The NCAA has given us additional penalties, and the sanctions are more severe than we expected. The ruling is disappointing for our new coaching staff and our student-athletes.”
Despite that disappointment, Thorp said the university would not appeal, citing both the high rate at which such appeals are rejected, and the university's desire to put behind it a highly unpleasant chapter in its history. The allegations -- particularly those involving academic fraud -- embarrassed the institution and have prompted renewed faculty concerns about the role of sports at the highly selective public university.
The case also raised the question of how closely institutions should be monitoring the social media sites of athletes. The NCAA report notes that statements posted on a social media website maintained by one of the Tar Heel athletes provided evidence of possible wrongdoing in the football program, and that NCAA member colleges are responsible for looking into allegations when they are made aware of them through social media.
But NCAA officials also said the infractions panel had discussed -- and ultimately rejected -- the idea that college officials should be regularly monitoring athletes' Facebook and other sites on a regular basis, as a matter of course. "We talked about where to strike that balance, given issues regarding privacy" said Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA and chairman of the infractions panel. "If there was information that was available or that came to the attention of a university, that's one thing. But to expect the university to monitor social networking sites of all their student athletes is too much."