Last November, Wisconsin compliance director Tim Bald visited The Shoe Box, a shoe and clothing store 25 miles from the school's campus in Madison, to investigate rumors that Badgers athletes were breaking NCAA rules by accepting improper discounts on merchandise. Owner Steve Schmitt told Bald that he gives all customers the same discounts, and Bald left thinking the athletes weren't in violation. "[Schmitt] was a businessman in good standing, and we felt we had to take him at his word," said Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter last week.
Hours before the Badgers' season opener against Western Michigan last Thursday, Wisconsin announced that 81 Badgers athletes, including 47 football players, had indeed received "extra benefits" at The Shoe Box; reportedly, the students were given discounts of nearly 50%, and a select few received interest-free credit. As a result, the NCAA suspended 26 football players—11 for three games each and 15 for one game apiece—and ordered 21 others to perform community service. Wisconsin was told the suspensions had to be served within the first four games of the season, and coach Barry Alvarez sat 11 players, including All-America defensive back Jamar Fletcher, against the Broncos. Although the Badgers won, 19-7, Alvarez called last Thursday his longest day as a coach. "That's got to be unprecedented for anybody to go through what we did," he said.
Alvarez and Richter were critical of the NCAA for not allowing Wisconsin to spread the suspensions throughout the season, but they should consider themselves lucky. By taking Schmitt at his word last November, the Badgers postponed an embarrassing scandal that could have cost Ron Dayne (a frequent shopper at The Shoe Box, according to Schmitt) the Heisman and spoiled last season's Rose Bowl run. Also, the four-game window means Alvarez can use the players with three-game suspensions this Saturday against a tough Oregon team and sit them against lightweights Cincinnati and Northwestern.
The large number of athletes involved indicates the discounts were no secret among the students. After the allegations surfaced in a Madison paper in July, several shoe store owners in the area said it was common knowledge that Schmitt, a basketball season-ticket holder who has contributed thousands of dollars to the school, gave athletes preferential treatment. Why else, they asked, would players travel 25 miles to buy shoes?
Schmitt, 53, maintains that all his customers get the same discount. Lines of credit that he extended to players such as Dayne are "about running a business where you trust your customers. Because I'm a Badgers fan, it saddens me to see this, but the truth is I treat everybody the same. I got an ad in the newspaper right now that says if you come in with cow manure on your boots, I'll give you a discount on a new pair. And we're busier than hell."