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FILE PHOTO: Apr 3, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams reacts against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the second half in the championship game of the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo

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By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) - The University of North Carolina has avoided major penalties for running sham classes taken by scholarship athletes after a probe found they did not violate National Collegiate Athletic Association academic rules, the sports body said on Friday.

Had the NCAA infractions panel found the classes existed solely to benefit athletes, the university could have faced penalties such as having its powerhouse men's basketball team barred from playing in the national championship tournament.

The panel found two violations in the case - a former department chair and a former curriculum secretary failed to cooperate during at least part of the investigation, the NCAA said.

“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, chief hearing officer for the NCAA panel that looked into the charges.

The NCAA is often criticized for its policing of college athletics, which rely on unpaid athletes who receive college scholarships. To remain eligible to play sports, college athletes must maintain at least a minimum grade point average.

The probe at UNC examined allegations that courses for the athletes were aimed at ensuring high marks with remarkably little effort and no class attendance.

The NCAA investigation centred on allegations the university of North Carolina gave men and women athletes extra benefits, such as easy courses not available to non-athlete students.

The NCAA report said "the courses involved no class attendance; limited, if any, faculty oversight; and liberal grading" It added that at least 3,100 students enrolled in such courses over about two decades.

The NCAA's report said it could not prove that the institution offered these courses only to athletes.

“The panel is in no way supporting what happened. What happened is troubling,” Sankey told reporters on a Friday conference call.

The panel held two days of hearings in August that included appearances by school officials as well as the UNC men's basketball coach Roy Williams and his attorney.

The NCAA noted UNC had taken steps to correct the system that led to the allegations, including more centralized management of a programme to academically support athletes.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt in a statement said the school had done "everything possible to correct and move beyond the past academic irregularities."

UNC is the reigning NCAA champion in men's basketball.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Andrew Hay)

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