Miami case shows how much perception of the NCAA has changed
When Yahoo! Sports dropped its exposé on rogue booster Nevin Shapiro and Miami in August of 2011, the public reacted with widespread shock and indignation. Booster payments! Yacht parties! Strippers! Agent inducements! This was the jackpot of college sports scandals, a modern-day SMU. Even NCAA president Mark Emmert tossed out the words "death penalty" in discussing the "very troubling" allegations.
Two-plus years later, at the end of a long and drawn-out investigative saga that embarrassed the NCAA as much as it did Miami, the Committee on Infractions finally handed down its verdict. While corroborating the crux of Shapiro's allegations and finding the school guilty of lack of institutional control, the committee accepted the school's self-imposed postseason ban the past two seasons as the bulk of its football punishment. The organization tacked on some minor scholarship reductions and two-year show cause orders for a couple of former Hurricanes' assistants.
Now, the same public that once hoped the NCAA would throw the book at the 'Canes is mostly just glad that the entire ordeal is over. Our threshold for outrage in 2013 is substantially higher than it was in 2011, and the NCAA, as much as the offending schools, is now widely viewed as worthy of blame in these cases.
Looking back at the timeline of the Miami investigation -- which began in earnest with the enforcement department's first contact with Shapiro in the spring of 2011 -- offers a glimpse into just how drastically the climate regarding NCAA infractions issues has changed. So much has happened during the intervening two and a half years, including but not limited to:
• The Jerry Sandusky/Penn State child abuse revelations, which reset the bar considerably as to what constitutes a "scandal" in college athletics
• The Ed O'Bannon v. the NCAA case and the increased level of media criticism surrounding the organization's longstanding amateurism model
• A general erosion of confidence in both Emmert and the NCAA's enforcement arm, exacerbated by the organization's admission last winter of investigative misconduct in the Miami case
• NCAA infractions fatigue, a feeling that's increased recently in the wake of the tattoo scandal at Ohio State, academic fraud at North Carolina, a "recruiting service" at Oregon, CouchGate at Boise State and more
The long and short of Tuesday's announcement -- which came an astoundingly long 18 weeks after Miami's June hearing before the committee, which reviewed "thousands" of documents -- is that both parties can finally move on.
Third-year Hurricanes football coach Al Golden, who had yet to coach a game when the Shapiro story first broke and now has led Miami back into the top 10 of the AP Poll, is finally free to recruit and coach without the hovering threat of additional sanctions. He'll be without a combined total of nine scholarships over the next three years (not nine per year, nine total, and deducted from the full roster, not initial recruiting classes), a penalty that's not insignificant but hardly crippling.
"It means we're able to move forward without the cloud of uncertainty hanging over our football program, which we haven't been able to do for three years," Miami athletic director Blake James said in an interview on Tuesday. "That's a significant sanction unto itself, one that wasn't documented in the report, but one everyone can recognize we were dealing with on a daily basis."
Meanwhile, the NCAA can finally move on from a saga that damaged its reputation both publicly and within the business; it cost former head of enforcement Julie Roe Lach her job and led to a mass exodus of top NCAA investigators.
"For several reasons this case was among the most extraordinary in the history of the NCAA and the Committee on Infractions," committee chair and Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said on Tuesday. "It is extraordinary in the size and scope of the record and overall number of violations involved, the time it took to investigate the case, the unfortunate public attention it received during that time and the inappropriate conduct by the NCAA [enforcement] staff.
"... Our hope is that this frustrating and disappointing chapter for the institution and the NCAA can be one more step closer to being closed."
The 102-page report released by the NCAA on Tuesday largely mirrors the original report by Yahoo! Sports in 2011. Future convict Shapiro, at that time an important booster (he contributed nearly $500,000 over eight years), was afforded mostly unfettered access to Miami's players, whom he feted with VIP perks. Former 'Canes safety Randy Phillips described very much the same thing in an interview with the Sun-Sentinel published on Tuesday. At least two former assistant coaches knowingly allowed Shapiro to entertain prospective recruits. The school failed to heed repeated warnings from a compliance officer that Shapiro needed to be reined in.
While the football allegations were largely old news, however, it's actually the basketball side that might raise some eyebrows. In one interview transcript, former head coach Frank Haith, now at Missouri, admits he funneled money through his assistants to Shapiro to essentially shut him up after threatening to expose violations in the program. Then Haith went back to investigators and tried to change his story. For all this he was suspended ... for five games. Somewhere, Bruce Pearl and Jim Tressel are steaming.
As is always the case with these stories, fans of previously sanctioned programs (most notably USC, which was hit with extremely harsh penalties that seem retroactively harsher with each subsequent case) will compare this situation to theirs and lament the discrepancies. By now, they should know that's a futile exercise. There has never been consistency from one case to the next, as the facts are rarely similar and the committee roster is constantly in flux. The only constant is how much stock the committee puts in contrition. Banowsky mentioned multiple times on Tuesday that Miami's self-imposed bowl ban was "significant and unprecedented." USC refused to acknowledge that it did anything wrong and paid the price. Whether it's fair or not, that's how the system works.
But that system is also changing. The Miami investigation was the last high-profile case to be heard under the NCAA's old penalty structure. A new, multi-tiered classification system with harsher penalties, a larger committee and more head-coach accountability went into effect on Aug. 1. So those looking to glean lessons from the Miami case ... don't. It's already irrelevant.
But NCAA changes are not limited to the rulebook. The environment in which it operates has undergone a far more radical overhaul, and its leaders would be wise to conduct a reevaluation of their priorities. In the organization's continued quest to draw a firm line in the sand about amateurism, what exactly is it accomplishing with cases like Miami's? Certainly it shouldn't roll over and allow schools to cheat in recruiting, and we can all agree that sleazeballs like Shapiro should be curtailed. But read those 102 pages and one would be hard-pressed to find how Miami gained any discernible advantage from Shapiro's involvement. In fact, the football program started to trend downward at the exact time he showed up on the scene.
So, now that all is said and done, was this whole saga really worth two and half years of work, thousands of documents and 18 weeks of deliberations? Was it all worth it just to say shame on you, Miami, but thanks for cooperating?
Some will contend the NCAA didn't do enough. Others will argue the school suffered unfairly. Almost no one will say this ruling seems reasonable. Justice was served. Good job, NCAA.
That's where we are in 2013 as compared to 2011.