Obama’s photo op broke NCAA rules

North Carolina’s men’s basketball team on Tuesday had what a team official called an extraordinary chance to play basketball with presidential candidate Barack Obama.

So extraordinary that an NCAA rule appears to have been broken — and the NCAA is apparently going to ignore it.

“This was a unique situation and not an NCAA issue,” NCAA media relations director Erik Christianson said in an e-mail message to The Raleigh News & Observer on Tuesday. “It certainly was a great opportunity for the student-athletes to interact with a presidential candidate.”

At issue is the timing of the informal scrimmage and the fact that Tar Heels coach Roy Williams watched it from the sideline.

According to NCAA bylaws, coaches are not allowed to watch pickup games at any time during the offseason. Division I basketball teams also are prohibited from any mandatory athletically related offseason activities through final exams. Exams began Monday at UNC.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Williams knew he wasn’t supposed to be at the Smith Center practice gym under the letter of the NCAA rules, but that these were “extraordinary circumstances,” and, with the number of Secret Service personnel on site, the coach wanted to be there to make sure that everything went OK.

Kirschner also said the Tar Heels play voluntary pickup games all the time that are within the rules because they are not mandatory. That’s what took place on Tuesday, he said.

“What they got to experience today was one of the most educational things they’ll ever do at the University of North Carolina … they got to talk, laugh, play with a man who might be the next president of the United States,” Kirschner said. “… Coach could watch our guys play pickup every day but doesn’t, and that’s when there aren’t 50 or so members of the media there to broadcast it to the world.”

The game was set up, Kirschner said, when a member of Obama’s campaign told Angie Bitting, director of the Smith Center, that the candidate would like to play a pickup game with the Tar Heels. Obama has been playing basketball at other campaign stops.

Bitting contacted Williams, who gave his consent as long as no players missed exams. Williams then asked video coordinator Eric Hoots to contact the team members and tell them they could play if they wanted to.

Tuesday morning, Obama toured the UNC locker room with Williams and his wife, Wanda, then played pickup with some team members, including All-America Tyler Hansbrough, Marcus Ginyard, Marc Campbell, Alex Stepheson and Deon Thompson. Former Tar Heels Wes Miller and Sam Perkins also were among those on hand.

Williams, who watched the play from a chair on the sideline, called out at one point: “You’ve got the future president of the United States wide open.”

And, yes, the Tar Heels started passing to him more.

Even as North Carolina officials acknowledged that Williams should not have been present, the NCAA’s Christianson would not specifically address whether rules were broken or if UNC asked for permission beforehand. Christianson responded again through e-mail: “This is not an NCAA issue.”

(News & Observer writer Anne Blythe contributed to this story. Contact Robbi Pickeral at robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com.)