Time has run out on the NCAA to give benefit of the doubt to North Carolina

North Carolina's athletic department and academic faculty are at fault even more than the players. (Getty Images)

The most important story in college athletics from the past few days -- or even weeks -- is not Shabazz Muhammad's surprise eligibility at UCLA. It is not the possible impending reality of realignment's latest ridiculous rearrangement. It is the case of academic fraud at North Carolina, a story with countless limbs that's continued to grow in recent months.

Late Saturday, the latest and most explosive details came to light. A current university employee and former academic liaison to North Carolina players spoke out about the school's disturbing, nearly 20-year pattern of academic leniency with athletes that often floated into the fraudulent realm.

It's a huge issue, one the NCAA alone isn't on the hook for, though it's in a mandated position to address -- and needs to immediately. The waylay on this probe should expire within a month; what else needs to be known at this point? It can only get worse; maybe that's the reason we still haven't seen a resolution and subsequent punishment from the NCAA aimed squarely at Chapel Hill.

Though there have been no indications that is the reality of the investigation.

The reality is, we are not dealing with breaking news at this point. I was initially reasonable and measured in my approach to the NCAA's process with Carolina. Let things unfold, see where the investigation goes and decide from there.

The News & Observer story changes things. What's more, this case is far from inchoate. The NCAA's curiosity with North Carolina goes back to 2010. Now, with more evidence of cheating in the worst of places -- the classroom -- what's taking so long? Whatever it is, time for excuses and the laborious bureaucratic processes have run out.

The NCAA not only needs to advance its investigation, but it can no longer allow North Carolina to wield the internal probe. That's where things have stood for months upon months now. The NCAA didn't send people on the payroll out to Chapel Hill to dig in and fully flesh out how players of both genders and many sports were remaining eligible via phony grades, plagiarized papers and inflated GPAs. North Carolina admitted its problems and took over a review. The NCAA complied (shouldn't UNC be the one doing that?) and has watched from a comfortable distance as North Carolina has reported its findings to the Monolith.

But we've reached a critical point. The NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert, need to take heed and take seriously this story and the accusations within. It should issue a statement by Monday's lunch. North Carolina should no longer be getting the benefit of sifting through its own records and interviewing its own people. In the wake of the most morally bankrupt and disgusting scandals in NCAA history at Penn State, now comes one of the most severe academic/athletic cases of recent times, as it went beyond the athletic department and infiltrated classroom corridors.

The NCAA needs to be as aggressive here as it was with Penn State. (And, like the Penn State case, this one also has an independent investigator.) They are vastly different cases with the same motif: those in power saw wrong and did nothing to stop it. If anything, corruption was enabled.

Mr. Emmert, what's taking so long?

Undoubtedly, the North Carolina grade fraud was an institutional problem, one -- presumably, perhaps naively -- of the past. But merely vacating wins or tournament titles is not tidying up the situation. It's a tangled situation, but the NCAA has no choice. It has to punish North Carolina, and it has to do so sooner rather than later. If Mary Willingham is willing to talk to a newspaper, she should be willing to talk to the NCAA. She already spoke amid an investigation once, back in 2010, according to Saturday's dynamite report.

The NCAA, according to Willingham, never followed up. Which means now the NCAA has been put in the most uncomfortable of positions and if nothing else, owes it to the process to sit down with Willingham.

Because you can't ignore this.

What were once murmurs turned into conversation, and now the demands will begin to funnel in. As has been stated plenty, the NCAA put itself in an awkward-but-necessary position of precedent with the Penn State punishment. Here, we have on-the-record accusation from a credible source and investigative evidence of system failure of institutional control.

The NCAA has punished -- and freed -- people and programs for much less.

Correction: this column originally noted that Willingham in 2010 spoke with the NCAA when in fact she spoke with UNC investigators amid an NCAA investigation.
CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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