Tuesday August 30th, 2011

The NCAA ruled Tuesday on the eligibility of eight Miami players implicated in the Nevin Shapiro scandal, and while all eight will miss action (ranging from one to six games) for accepting impermissible benefits, it certainly could have been worse. No one was deemed permanently ineligible, like North Carolina's stars last season. Several key players (quarterback Jacory Harris, defensive tackle Marcus Forston, linebacker Sean Spence and receiver Travis Benjamin) will miss just one game. The 'Canes will be extremely short-handed for Monday's opener against Maryland (no small thing since it's an ACC game). However, all but safety Ray Ray Armstrong (four games), defensive lineman Oliver Vernon (six games) and backup tight end Dyron Dye (four games) will be back for the 'Canes' Sept. 17 clash with Ohio State.

But the same NCAA release that spelled out the specifics of the Miami 8's reinstatement decisions does not bode well for the school's prospects in the NCAA's separate and wider enforcement investigation into possible Shapiro-related infractions. In very specific detail, the NCAA spells out exactly what benefits each player received from Shapiro, and in doing so, paints mostly the exact same picture the jailed booster spelled out in Yahoo!'s investigation. Forston's $400 in extra benefits included "nightclub cover charges and entertainment at a gentleman's club." Vernon's $1,200 in benefits dated to his recruitment and included "access to Shapiro's game suite, drinks, as well as cover charges at two different nightclubs, among others."

The fact that these players apparently spilled the beans to investigators puts a fork in the belly of any skeptics out there (mostly defensive Miami fans, though certain pot-stirring journalists have recently joined the party) still clinging to the possibility that the busted Ponzi schemer made this stuff up, too. Considering how closely the details in the NCAA's release about these eight players matched the descriptions in Yahoo!'s piece, it's now reasonable to believe he probably did most of the things he said he did with all 72 athletes. Not that the NCAA needs to track down all 72. A booster providing benefits to eight players is enough on its own to merit major violations, not to mention several other former Hurricanes now at other schools (namely Purdue's Robert Marve, Kansas State's Bryce and Arthur Brown) reportedly received "limited immunity" to speak with investigators without jeopardizing their eligibility. Presumably they shared much the same stories.

And if anyone disclosed violations that occurred prior to Feb. 26, 2008 (and several of the aforementioned player signed with the school earlier that month), it triggers "repeat violator" status for Miami -- which can lead to harsher penalties.

But the most troubling part of all in the NCAA's release is the repeated use of a cryptic and ominous phrase: "athletics personnel." As in, "the student-athletes received varying levels of recruiting inducements and extra benefits from university booster Nevin Shapiro and athletics personnel." It mentions that phrase specifically in regards to Armstrong and Forston, though it's unclear whether it applies to others as well.

"Athletics personnel" presumably refers to a person or multiple people employed by the school's athletics department. For all the salacious details that poured out of Shapiro's mouth, the extent of Miami's culpability depends largely on whether anyone at the school "knew or should have known" (in the infamous words of former Miami athletic director Paul Dee) about Shapiro's transgressions.

The release doesn't state said "athletics personnel" by name like it does Shapiro, probably because it would impinge on the larger investigation. But remember, in Yahoo!'s report, Shapiro claimed Sean Allen, a former student manager who later worked for Shapiro, served as a conduit to the players. If that's true, it's a major problem, because Allen returned to Miami as an assistant equipment manager in 2009 and is therefore obligated to disclose knowledge of violations. Shapiro mentioned two other equipment managers, Joey Corey and Ralph Nogueras, as well. Even worse for Miami would be if the "athletics personnel" in question includes any of the four former assistant coaches (Clint Hurtt, Jeff Stoutland, Aubrey Hill and Joe Pannunzio), all of whom now work at other schools.

The good news for Miami coach Al Golden is that he now knows exactly who he will and won't have at his disposal this season and for how long. He released a depth chart for the Maryland game shortly after Tuesday's announcement.

The bad news for Golden is that the program he took charge of last winter is now on a near-certain path toward major sanctions. With one press release Tuesday, the Nevin Shapiro scandal took its first tangible steps from allegations to violations.

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