"Honesty is the best policy," as the saying goes.

That expression, widely attributed to Benjamin Franklin, holds as true today as it did two centuries ago. Some University of Missouri faithful are likely to disagree, however, following Thursday's turn of events.

The MU Athletics Department was delivered a gut punch last Thursday in the way of NCAA penalties for academic fraud. From 2015 to 2016, an academic tutor helped 12 student-athletes in the football, softball and basketball programs cheat by doing their coursework for them. The NCAA investigation concluded that the tutor, Yolanda Kumar, acted alone and that MU "did the right thing" by reporting the problem. But that didn't stop the NCAA Committee on Infractions from slapping MU with some of the most severe penalties possible, in the form of program budget cuts, vacated wins, the loss of scholarships, postseason bans and three years of probation.

Make no mistake, cheating is wrong. Period. But it wasn't the university, its officials or coaching staff that erred. In fact, MU reported the wrongdoing itself.

Here's why we're left scratching our heads.

The NCAA also investigated the University of North Carolina after it became known UNC created fake classes so student-athletes would have the easiest academic path possible. This went on for 18 years and involved more than 3,100 students enrolled in "paper classes." UNC defended these courses vehemently and refused to cooperate with the NCAA investigation. UNC was rewarded for its deceit, as no penalties came from the case.

"UNC asserted that although courses were created and created by an office secretary, students completed their own work," said Dave Roberts, chief hearing officer for the NCAA investigative panel.

There you have it. UNC created phony courses that were so easy students wouldn't need to cheat, and the NCAA says that's alright.

The real victims here are the MU administration, coaches and athletes who weren't at the university when the cheating occured. Other victims include high school athletes committed to play for MU in 2019, current student-athletes who didn't cheat but have no postseason future in their senior seasons, and fans stripped of any hope there might be championships in store for the football, softball and baseball programs.

Those who deserve to be punished for academic fraud are all long gone. So are the university's former president and chancellor, and most of the coaches for these programs, employed at the time the fraud occurred. The lesson the NCAA is trying to teach will never reach its intended recipients.

MU intends to appeal the NCAA penalties. We hope they win. We're fans of fairness when doling out justice. MU deserves a punishment that fits the crime.

Regardless of what happens during the appeal, it's worth remembering MU did the right thing. University leaders were honest. We hope they continue to be and don't take the wrong lesson from all this – that sometimes it pays to be dishonest.

– Columbia Daily Tribune