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Regardless of outcome, authorities need to resolve UNC hoops case promptly

After the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament, I thought nothing could surprise me anymore. But I also never thought North Carolina had a chance at making the Final Four.

While I am still shocked at how a team that was so mediocre throughout the regular season could perform so well in the Tournament, I can take comfort in knowing that at least I wasn't the only one surprised by the Tar Heels' performance lately.

After all, if the North Carolina men's basketball players believed they had any chance at making the Final Four, Tar Heel point guards Ed Cota and Terrence Newby would not have scheduled their court date for April 3, the date of the national championship game in Indianapolis.

The April 3 court date was Cota and Newby's third attempt at an appearance in district court for an Oct. 31 brawl at Franklin Street - UNC's equivalent of the Corner. Each was charged Nov. 1 with three counts of assault inflicting serious injury and two counts of simple assault.

Although the trial was granted continuances on three different occasions for differing reasons, the UNC athletic department succeeded yesterday in delaying the hearing a fourth time to allow Cota and Newby the opportunity to play in the NCAA title game.

If Cota and Newby had been required to be in District Court on April 3, they would have been disqualified from playing in the title game of the Tournament, as NCAA regulations would prevent the two from flying to North Carolina Sunday and then returning to Indianapolis Monday after the trial. The Tar Heels, therefore, would have been forced to play in Monday's game without either of their point guards.

While the Tar Heels would have been at a tremendous disadvantage by playing in the title game without both of their floor generals, a worse situation has arisen now that the legal system has once again catered to athletes in deciding policy.

When Florida State's Peter Warrick asked the courts to speed up his case so he could return to the gridiron, the court agreed. Now the court has agreed to push Cota and Newby's trial back just so the two can be on the hardwood.

Not playing in the championship game would have been a very unfortunate punishment for players who have made it that far in the Tournament, but it is also something that easily could have been prevented if the Tar Heel guards had avoided the incident in the first place.

While the charges may be extreme, the courts cannot assess the situation until after a trial takes place. By continuously delaying the trial and catering to the defendants' special requests to play basketball, the alleged victims in the case are not receiving the justice they deserve under the United States legal system.

Even if Cota was not involved directly, as he claimed, he needs to realize he is a very identifiable person and that any involvement at all in a fight is bound to make waves. Whether he likes it or not, he is a role model and a representative of his university, and he has a responsibility not to involve himself in situations that would compromise the athletic department's integrity.

But delaying the trial again also sends a very important message to Cota, Newby and the public as a whole.

Instead of advocating responsibility both on and off the court, the continuance showed that basketball remains more important than anything else.

"I was just concentrating on winning the championship and not worrying about these off-the-court things," Cota told The Associated Press yesterday. "There is always a time and place to deal with that and I've never let it come between basketball."

Apparently North Carolina courts feel the same way and are willing to trample on the principles that normal people are subject to in the name of big money athletics.

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