The N.C.A.A. on Friday announced that it “could not conclude that the University of North Carolina violated N.C.A.A. academic rules” in what is widely considered the worst academic scandal in college sports history.
The organization, which governs the top tier of college sports in the United States, did not levy any penalties against North Carolina athletics.
Given that the university’s athletic department could have faced severe sanctions, including the loss of championships, the N.C.A.A.’s determination was a major victory for North Carolina.
The N.C.A.A. did not dispute that a major academic fraud had occurred over several years, but its committee on infractions, which empowered a panel to investigate, concluded it did not have the power to punish the university.
“While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’ offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes,” said Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, who led the panel.
Sankey said his panel was “troubled by the university’s shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus,” but he said the infractions committee was powerless to punish North Carolina for courses the university offered to any member of the general student body.
“N.C.A.A. policy is clear,” he said. “The N.C.A.A. defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership.”
According to a university-commissioned investigation, North Carolina had for nearly two decades offered a “shadow curriculum” of fake classes into which athletes were steered. The university appeared guilty of subverting the N.C.A.A.’s central tenet that college athletics are a mere component of education.
U.N.C. was charged with a “lack of institutional control” resulting in violations of bylaws governing extra benefits to athletes and ethical conduct.
The scheme involved nearly 200 laxly administered and graded classes — frequently requiring no attendance and just one paper — over nearly two decades. Their students were disproportionately athletes, especially in the lucrative, high-profile sports of football and men’s basketball. They were mostly administered by a staff member named Deborah Crowder. In many cases, athletes were steered to the classes by athletics academic advisers.
The scandal was so serious that the university’s accreditation body briefly placed the institution on probation.
In its latest notice of allegations, which is the N.C.A.A. equivalent of a lawsuit or indictment, the N.C.A.A.’s enforcement staff pointed to the high enrollment of athletes in the classes — nearly half, according to the university-commissioned investigation led by Kenneth L. Wainstein — and emails in which advisers requested spots for athletes.
U.N.C. had contended that the case was fundamentally academic in nature, and that athletics staffers were at most tangential to it. They cited instances in which similar misconduct was alleged at Auburn and Michigan, and the N.C.A.A. did not act.
An earlier version of a picture with this article was published in error. It showed North Carolina’s 2017 national championship team, not the 2005 championship team.