I was about to hang up the phone when Donna Shalala, the former Clinton Cabinet secretary who is now president of the University of Miami, interrupted me. She had something she wanted to say before our interview ended.
“They’re not some foreign entity,” she said, “and we shouldn’t act like they are. University presidents have to demand that they change the way they do business.”
Can you guess whom she was referring to? Yes: our old friends at the NCAA.
It was Thursday when we spoke, two days after the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions unveiled the penalties it was imposing on Miami after a long, tortured — and botched — investigation by the NCAA’s much-feared enforcement staff.
Several years ago, Nevin Shapiro — an ardent University of Miami booster, who is in prison for running a Ponzi scheme — told Yahoo Sports that for years he had entertained players at his home, bought them meals and gifts, picked up the tab at strip clubs and given them small amounts of cash. His stature was such that he had nearly as much access to the football and men’s basketball teams as the coaches. He got to stand on the sidelines during games. Twice he led the team onto the field for a game.
Shapiro now says his involvement with the football and men’s basketball teams was so corrupt that it ranked with the Southern Methodist University scandal of nearly three decades ago, when boosters were openly paying players. SMU got “the death penalty,” meaning it was not allowed to field a football team for two years, and Shapiro claimed that the University of Miami should be treated as harshly.
Indeed, Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA — and the current chairman of the Committee on Infractions — said in a conference call Thursday that the Miami case had been “extraordinary in its size and scope.” It involved more than 30 athletes.
So how is it then that the penalties that were revealed last week — a loss of nine scholarships over a three-year period — were little more than a slap on the wrist? One theory — the one proposed by the NCAA — was that the university had already punished itself by withdrawing its football team from postseason play for two straight years. (On the other hand, those teams weren’t very good.)
A second possible reason is that the NCAA was gun shy after its mistakes in the Miami investigation. Unable to interview certain witnesses, NCAA investigators paid Shapiro’s lawyer to feed questions they wanted answered during a deposition about a bankruptcy proceeding. Several NCAA investigators were fired, as was the chief of enforcement. Shalala, meanwhile, did something most college presidents are terrified of doing: She openly criticized the NCAA, accusing it of leaking false information and labeling some of its investigative tactics as “ludicrous.”
And then there’s the third possible reason, which is the one that most people in college sports believe. The NCAA does whatever it wants, regardless of whether the results are fair or appropriate. I’m of the opinion that there is something loony about punishing a school because its athletes got free meals (though, admittedly, they probably shouldn’t be hanging out with the likes of Nevin Shapiro). But that’s me. In the world we live in, these are called “impermissible benefits,” and punishment must be meted out.
In which case, there should at least be some rhyme or reason to the penalties — some consistency. But there isn’t. In 2010, for instance, the NCAA absolutely hammered the University of Southern California, taking away 30 football scholarships and imposing a two-year postseason ban. That case involved exactly one athlete — star running back Reggie Bush — and it is far from clear that anybody at the school knew what was going on.
When Banowsky was asked during the conference call why the Miami penalty was so comparatively mild, he gave the classic NCAA answer: “Each case is different,” he said. “We don’t put cases against each other based on the unique nature of each case.”
But they’re really not that unique. They all revolve around various kinds of recruiting violations and “impermissible benefits.” It wouldn’t be hard at all to come up with a system that institutionalized certain penalties for certain violations and to put some real fairness into a system that, today, is anything but fair.
Before she hung up, Shalala told me that she is part of a group of “major university presidents” who have taken up the task of reforming the NCAA. Although she declined to give specifics, she said that “it is very clear to me what changes need to be made.”
I look forward to seeing what she and her fellow presidents come up with.