The PJ Hairston Saga Is Not FinishedPosted by Chris Johnson on August 16th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The P.J. Hairston saga has all the makings of a classic amateurism bombshell. The shady third-party handler vaguely accused of providing money and/or gifts to a college athlete. A star player from one of the most esteemed college sports brands in the country. A drug charge. A loaded firearm and ammunition found outside of an obscurely rented vehicle. The evidence-based suspicion of broader corruption among program athletes. An apparent academic scandal simmering in the backdrop. The amateurism debate reaching flood stage in the public discourse. A high-profile lawsuit challenging amateurism’s very existence. The convenience of the Johnny Manziel saga. It’s all too timely and salacious and interesting, but here’s the thing: We haven’t even come close to reaching the finish line. Hairston was indefinitely suspended from UNC basketball after being ticketed for speeding on July 28, his third reported traffic citation of the summer, and all charges related to his July 5 traffic stop have been dropped. Hairston won’t be punished by the legal system, but that was never the biggest part of his summer saga, anyway.
No, the most concerning aspect of Hairston’s malfeasance is the status of his eligibility heading into a season in which North Carolina is expected to compete for a conference championship with the junior expected to shoulder the bulk of the point-producing load and solidify UNC’s otherwise shaky defensive perimeter. He may not be able to do any of that if the NCAA finds the vehicles he drove this summer were rented out to Hairston impermissibly, or if any of his dealings with local party promoter and convicted felon Haydn ‘Fats’ Thomas are deemed in violation of the organization’s confusing (and highly controversial) amateurism rules. More than two months out from the start of the 2013-14 college hoops season, Hairston’s future with the Tar Heels hangs in the balance. His status for the upcoming season is just as mysterious as all the plot twists and legal nuance that brought us to this point.
But someone has to know how Hairston’s situation will be dealt with. Every “indefinite” suspension has – even if kept in-house between coaches and athletic department officials – a timeline. Someone must have an inkling about whether the Tar Heels will get their do-it-all junior for the upcoming season. That person – or, one of those people – is North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who, according to a tweet from UNC journalism professor Andy Bechtel, responded to a question at a faculty retreat about whether Hairston would be able to play this season with this: “Yes, but not all the games.”
The near-daily frequency of Hairston developments earlier this summer had slowed in recent weeks. The days when USA Today and the Raleigh News & Observer were spewing out parking citations data and court updates were long gone, it seemed. This week has seen a renewal of Hairston news, beginning with Roy Williams’ plaintive plea for a moratorium on Hairston-related talks – which, coming from an athletic department fending off accusations of widespread academic fraud in conjunction with the athletic department, felt as disingenuous it did suspicious. This latest update on Hairston’s playing status – which is by no means official; remember, Hairston is still suspended from the team – adds another twist. Clearing Hairston for action is the next step, and if he is allowed to play, the Tar Heels would have a much better chance of contending in the new-look ACC. Most non-Duke college hoops fans, on a purely competitive level (some believe Hairston’s actions were so despicable in principle that they have already made up their minds about how he should be punished, believing Hairston shouldn’t be allowed to play no matter what the NCAA turns up), should want to see Hairston on the court this season. But if he does play, as Cunningham’s response intimates, the Tar Heels could be taking a huge risk: If Hairston is ruled to have accepted impermissible benefits from Thomas or anyone else, any win he partakes in would be wiped from UNC’s record books down the line. Win vacation is a silly and mostly cosmetic thing, but it does leave a black mark on the punished program, and UNC could be walking that precarious line.
The possibility exists, of course, that the NCAA has already completed its investigation into Hairston, and found nothing deemed in violation of the organization’s amateurism prohibitions. In that case, playing Hairston would present no threat to the program’s record books; potential PR backlash for perceptibly “weak” punishment would be the only major repercussion. Maybe UNC knows something about Hairston it hasn’t exposed to the media. Maybe not. All we have is a loosely-sourced quote from UNC’s athletic director.
And so, the P.J. Hairston saga continues to baffle.