(Chris Keane/Reuters)

One of the worst academic scandals in the history of college sports ended with a whimper Friday, with the NCAA ruling it will not punish the University of North Carolina’s athletics department for deficient “paper courses” taken by thousands of students, many of them athletes, over nearly two decades.

In a decision released Friday morning, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions concluded that because the lenient classes in the school’s African and Afro-American studies department — which never met, rarely involved university faculty and often provided passing grades in exchange for one short paper graded by a university secretary — were also taken by regular students, NCAA investigators couldn’t prove the classes constituted an unfair benefit for North Carolina athletes.

“It’s important to understand that the panel is in no way supporting what happened. What happened was troubling,” said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, a member of the NCAA panel that heard the case. “But the panel couldn’t conclude violations. That’s reality.”

North Carolina had faced potential penalties in multiple sports — including men’s and women’s basketball, as well as football — that could have included postseason bans and the vacating of two men’s basketball championships won during the time span the deficient classes were offered. Instead, the only sanction the NCAA handed down at the conclusion of a 3½ year investigation was a “show-cause” order for former African and Afro-American studies department chair Julius Nyang’oro, an essentially meaningless penalty that will make it more difficult for the retired professor to obtain a job in college athletics.

The saga dates to 2011, when the Raleigh News & Observer published the first in what became a series of stories about the irregular courses, which were nominally taught by Nyang’oro but often simply required one paper actually graded by Deborah Crowder, a manager in the African and Afro-American studies department.

In 2013, a grand jury indicted Nyang’oro on a fraud charge stemming from the classes, a charge that prosecutors later dropped. In 2014, a university-commissioned investigation by Kenneth L. Wainstein — a former general counsel at the FBI and partner at the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft — found that at least 3,100 students had taken the “paper classes” from 1993 until 2011.

Of those students, Wainstein found, nearly half were athletes, with football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball the most represented. Former star football player Julius Peppers took several of the courses, and Rashad McCants — a star from the Tar Heels’ 2005 NCAA men’s basketball championship team — has said he took several bogus classes, and that tutors directed him to the courses and wrote papers for him. This was all well known in the athletic department, McCants has claimed. Coach Roy Williams and other players from the 2005 team have disputed McCants’s allegations.

Wainstein concluded that the classes were part of a “shadow curriculum” developed by Nyang’oro and Crowder to help struggling North Carolina students, particularly athletes, and that university academic counselors steered athletes into these classes. Wainstein did not find evidence top North Carolina athletics or university officials were aware of the classes.

North Carolina initially accepted the Wainstein report’s findings, the NCAA noted, as its accreditation agency was examining the situation. When the NCAA decided the situation potentially merited penalties for North Carolina athletics, however, university officials “pivoted dramatically” and “disavowed” the report, the NCAA noted. Sankey said the NCAA intends to forward its ruling along to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, North Carolina’s accrediting body, which in 2015 took the rare step of placing the school on probation over the no-show classes.

In a news conference in Chapel Hill Friday afternoon, North Carolina officials welcomed the NCAA’s decision, which affirmed what university leaders have been saying for years when speaking in public about the “paper courses” — because the classes were offered to all students, they didn’t fall under the purview of NCAA jurisdiction.

“We had some things that occurred that we haven’t been proud of,” Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham said. “Sometimes the behavior that you’re not proud just doesn’t quite fit into a bylaw or a rule . . . and that’s what we’ve been talking about for five years. We’re not proud of the behavior, but we didn’t think it fit into a bylaw.”

North Carolina officials disagreed with the NCAA’s criticism of the school’s changing positions on the Wainstein report, claiming they have never disagreed with the facts Wainstein uncovered, just his conclusions about the role of athletics and the motivations of those involved.

While UNC athletic officials have said they had no knowledge of the courses and did not participate in steering players to them, the Wainstein report noted that North Carolina’s football staff seemed especially concerned when Crowder retired in 2009. Athletics academics counselors and football coaches held a meeting in which a PowerPoint presentation explained the importance of the classes in keeping football players academically eligible.

“We put them in classes that met degree requirements in which . . . they didn’t go to class . . . they didn’t have to take notes, have to stay awake . . . they didn’t have to meet with professors . . . they didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material,” the presentation said. “THESE NO LONGER EXIST.”

On campus, Friday’s ruling was the welcome conclusion to a scandal that has created distractions for the university and its sports teams for six years. The Tar Heels basketball teams are scheduled to hold their version of Midnight Madness on Friday night, kicking off their new seasons. A banner celebrating last season’s men’s basketball national title will be raised to the rafters at Smith Center, alongside the 2005 and 2009 banners, which, after Friday’s ruling, are there to stay.

Read more:

Jenkins: As the FBI uncovers a shadow economy, let’s be clear who created it: The NCAA

Most call it a college basketball scandal. In Louisville, they call it ‘total Armageddon.’

Pitino began his career under suspicion. It’ll end there, too.

Wizards’ Wall reflects on his college recruitment as a teammate worries about the scandal

Feinstein: College coaches know everything that goes in their programs. Even Pitino.

Svrluga: Let’s be honest: This is how college sports works