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At Last, Storm Settles at Miami

October 23, 2013

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s investigation of the University of Miami – whose athletics department and top football and basketball players received hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods either through or directly from a now-imprisoned booster – finally drew to a close Tuesday, three years and 11 months after Miami first alerted the NCAA to potential violations.

Among the findings, announced Tuesday, of the NCAA’s investigation: Booster Nevin Shapiro gave one athlete $50,000 to persuade him to sign with an agent. Others received food, clothes, housing and cash prizes for fishing contests on Shapiro’s yacht. He raised money for the university, which named a student lounge for him, and coaches paid him off once he threatened to talk. (He did anyway.)

“The University of Miami lacked institutional control when it did not monitor the activities of a major booster, the men’s basketball and football coaching staffs, student-athletes and prospects for a decade,” the NCAA declared in its news release. Lack of institutional control is the most serious NCAA violation.

Yet all the association itself gave Miami for those sizable transgressions was three years’ probation, a loss of 12 scholarships, and some suspensions and show-cause orders for former coaches.

Importantly, Miami had already self-imposed significant penalties, including a two-year ban on playing in the postseason. And the NCAA had to throw out 20 percent of its findings after discovering that its investigators were paying to glean information through Shapiro’s bankruptcy proceedings.

Once, after Yahoo Sports reported in a 2011 expose that far more players (73), money (more than $170,000) and benefits (including access to prostitutes and an abortion for one of them) were involved, it seemed like the death penalty, an almost-never imposed ban on football, was plausible.

It’s fair to say that the investigation – one of the longest, strangest and most closely followed in recent memory, if not NCAA history – was complex, enormous and unique, as Committee on Infractions Chair Britton Banowsky said in a call with reporters Tuesday. (The call, in a fitting metaphor for the investigation itself, kept reporters on hold several minutes past the start time and had a connection so poor that it was difficult to hear what was said).

But that’s partly because the NCAA botched the investigation by paying Shapiro’s bankruptcy lawyer to subpoena witnesses for the Miami case, while the booster served jail time for the Ponzi scheme through which he supported Miami. That misstep didn’t just delay the investigation even further, it called the integrity of the review – and the ability of the NCAA's enforcement process to function – into question.

The infractions committee used none of the improperly obtained information, Banowsky said, and in fact did not even consider the enforcement staff’s mistakes when deciding on penalties.

Rather, he suggested that Miami’s self-imposed penalties were hugely consequential. The two-year bowl ban that Miami gave itself in an attempt to head off major punishment down the road resulted in recusal from the 2012 Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and a subsequent bowl game. The university also levied significant recruiting restrictions against itself.

“Our hope is that this frustrating and disappointing chapter for the institution and the NCAA can be one step closer to being closed,” Banowsky said, and that all those impacted “can now move forward.”

Miami President Donna E. Shalala didn’t quite get what she wanted. After the NCAA admitted it erred in the investigation, she said the university should not be further penalized beyond its self-imposed bowl ban.

“The NCAA has not lived up to its core principles,” Shalala said in February. “We have been wronged in this investigation, and we believe that this process must come to a swift resolution.”

The whole debacle put the NCAA in a precarious position. Some speculated that Shalala was prepared to sue if she didn’t like what the NCAA decided. But on Tuesday, Miami officials said they accepted the findings and would not appeal.

“The Committee on Infractions report closes a challenging chapter in the history of the University of Miami,” Shalala said in a statement. “I want to apologize to the Hurricane family, as we have asked for your patience, faith and support during a difficult time.”

To be sure, the nine football and three basketball scholarships the NCAA tossed are not a throwaway to the students who won’t be able to get them despite having nothing to do with the scandal. But considering the extensive detail with which the NCAA documented Miami’s violations in a 102-page public infractions report , the NCAA did not use a particularly heavy hand.

The University of Southern California, for instance, lost triple the number of scholarships, got a bowl ban of its own and was crippled for years when Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush received impermissible benefits. USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, who has been vocal in his opposition to the penalties, said in a statement Tuesday that “We’ve always felt that our penalties were too harsh. This decision only bolsters that view.”

But Miami’s response to the investigation seems to have made all the difference. In addition to the bowl ban, Miami cut 20 percent of football's official paid visits and 20 percent of days the coaches could visit with recruits in 2012-13.

“We felt like the institution’s self-imposed penalties were absolutely significant – unprecedented, really – and also the level of cooperation in this case was commendable,” Banowsky said. Those penalties indicated that Miami took the case seriously and understood the need to respond internally, he said. “To impose these bowl bans is a big deal. A very big deal…. The committee appreciated those decisions and it’s reflected, I think, in our report.”

The NCAA’s penalties should be considered as add-ons to those self-imposed by Miami, said Josephine R. Potuto, a University of Nebraska at Lincoln law professor and former infractions committee chair. If the NCAA believed a two-year bowl ban was appropriate, it wouldn’t smack another two-year ban on top of the one that’s already been imposed.

“What the committee always does is consider the institutional penalty as part of the committee penalty. You have to do it that way,” she said in an interview. “Otherwise it’s not fair to the school that was proactive.”

'A failure to monitor'

The infractions report details how Shapiro, coaches and athletics staff violated NCAA rules, mostly through recruiting inducements and extra benefits for athletes. In addition to providing for athletes, Shapiro “was a significant donor” to the football and men’s basketball programs and also conducted personal and financial dealings with coaching staff, including gifts and loans.

The staff include the former head basketball coach Frank Haith and two former assistant coaches, and four former assistant football coaches.

Miami first reported impermissible phone calls and text messages to the NCAA in November 2009. In February 2011, Shapiro reported to the NCAA about more serious violations that he said he was involved in. Shortly thereafter, the investigation formally began.

The dealings with Shapiro’s lawyer took place in fall 2011, but NCAA President Mark Emmert says he didn’t learn of the inappropriate conduct until early this year, when he fired several enforcement staff members and announced an internal NCAA review of the Miami investigation.

A few days later, Miami received its notice of allegations, the formal notification of NCAA charges against an institution. The investigation covered 18 allegations with 79 subparts, 118 interviews with 81 people, and 15 binders of documents, totaling thousands of pages.

Then the infractions committee took over, using a special process to account for the enforcement staff’s mistakes and to try to speed up the process.

“Although the institution and involved individuals, except one, asked in some form that the allegations be dismissed or limited in some fashion due to the bankruptcy depositions and other numerous and evolving complaints about the investigation, the committee heard the case on the merits,” the report says.

“The institution demonstrated a failure to monitor its programs and the booster’s activities,” the report concludes. “The institution also failed to have the proper policies and procedures in place during the relevant time period, which led to the committee concluding that there was a lack of institutional control."

Haith, who is now head coach at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and an assistant coach gave the booster $10,000 after he threatened to expose impermissible contact with recruits and coaches, the NCAA says. Then, Haith helped pay off Shapiro’s mother.

One of the NCAA’s penalties is a five-game suspension for Haith at Missouri, but he will stay on the staff.

A former assistant football coach, Clint Hurtt, who the NCAA says received and provided extra benefits for athletes and lied to investigators, received a show-cause order. University of Louisville officials said he will remain on the staff there, as associate head coach for the defensive line, but “will be closely monitored” and have his salary frozen for two years, according to a university statement.

“No doubt folks will have a difference of opinion,” Banowsky said when asked why the scholarship reductions seemed light compared to other instances. “We don’t put cases up against each other because of the unique nature of each case.”

 

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