Rule breaking is an institutional problem, not isolated to Miami

Publish date:

The violations are so over-the-top, so blatant and widespread, that by the time you're done reading about them, you may reach the same conclusion I did: The people at Miami didn't care about the rules.

I don't mean they didn't care about right and wrong. I mean, that it didn't seem like a matter of right and wrong. I would bet that most of the players didn't think they were cheating. Oh, they might have known what they were doing was against the rules. But did they ever think Miami was getting some kind of competitive advantage? Did they think it was wrong? I doubt it.

And if people don't care about the rules, how do you stop them from breaking the rules. Should you even try? Most of the Miami violations fall under the NCAA rules about "extra benefits." The principle is that athletes should not get benefits that are not available to other students.

But what if the NCAA flipped that around? What if the NCAA decided that if regular students can take free drinks and meals without anybody caring, athletes should be allowed to do that too?

The current cycle is absurd and pointless: Athletes take what they can get. Schools ignore it. Unless an excellent reporter like Charles Robinson of Yahoo! looks into it, or a booster gets in legal trouble (as Shapiro did), nothing happens.

I won't say everybody cheats. I don't believe that. A lot of people have a fundamental inclination to follow rules, either out of guilt or a fear of getting caught.

But college sports, at their core, have nothing to do with amateurism. I mean that in a very practical sense. Players choose schools for education or playing time or because they like the coaches or the helmets. They work out and practice and study and party. Coaches watch film and recruit and put together game plans and punt on fourth-and-1 when they should go for it.

Nobody gets into sports because they have a passion for players not getting paid. They are certainly players who believe in following rules, but that doesn't mean they believe in the rules themselves.

There are coaches, like Jim Tressel, who care about many of their players and still choose to cheat. And there are coaches who care about their players and choose not to cheat. There are players who excel in school and take money from boosters and agents. And there are players who skip class, barely stay eligible, never graduate and don't take a dime.

This isn't like a restaurant complying with the health department or a construction company sticking to building codes. Those are safety issues. It's more like if I hired you as an airline pilot and I said "In addition to adhering to safety standards, you cannot accept any free golf lessons, drink bourbon or eat pistachios. If we catch you doing that, you're fired."

I'm sure some people would avoid the free golf lessons, the bourbon and the pistachios, just because they didn't want to get fired. Others would surreptitiously grab an occasional pistachio, eat it quickly, then feel terribly guilty about breaking the rule. And some others would say "To hell with it" and wash down their pistachios with bourbon while taking their free golf lessons. But none of it would have anything to do with flying a plane.

This is how many, many college athletes view the NCAA's amateurism rules. They might follow them. They might not. But they don't passionately believe in the rules.

How could they? How could they possibly think the NCAA has their best interests at heart? This is an organization that requires players to not only miss one or two days of class for every week of the NCAA tournament, but also requires them to miss an additional day just for press conferences and open practices in front of fans. This benefits me professionally, but I would never in a million years argue that it is in the best interest of players. It's about marketing. Does the NCAA think players don't realize that?

The extremes of the Miami case should show you how preposterous this entire enterprise is. Former Miami athletic director Paul Dee was the chair of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. He either didn't care, or didn't know, about some of the most blatant extra benefits in NCAA history. Heck, Shapiro, had official ties to the University of Miami athletic department and owned part of a sports agency. That alone should have set off the loudest alarms in South Florida. NCAA cases are about plausible deniability -- we didn't know, we could have known, the head coach didn't know, it was the assistant director of associate something-or-other's fault, kids these days are nutty, please be nice to us, etc. Miami has no plausible deniability here.

The Hurricanes, from AD to compliance officers to players, just decided they didn't much care for the rules. And if Shapiro had made his money in real estate or through legitimate investments, instead of through a Ponzi scheme, he would probably still be throwing his party.

Should Miami get hit with severe penalties? Yes, absolutely. Rules are rules, and breaking them is cheating. But at what point do we realize that this is all a needless charade? Why is the NCAA in the business of keeping players poor? (They're not all poor, of course. But some are.)

Florida State fans have not laughed this hard since Florida hired Ron Zook. I get that. Part of the fun of sports is watching your rivals embarrass themselves. But who are we kidding? Florida State and Miami recruit so many of the same players. Do people really think Miami got the ones who don't know right from wrong? Or that FSU got the ones who believe they have an ethical obligation to follow every single rule?

Do we think Miami had the single rogue booster who got a thrill out of partying with players?

For that matter, forget about sports for a second. How many college students turn down free booze? How many 20-year-old heterosexual males tell attractive women to go away? I'm absolutely not condoning drinking to excess or prostitution. I just don't see why this should be an NCAA issue.

The NCAA can hit Miami hard, but it has no chance to stop this from happening at other schools. None. Heck, as we've seen, the NCAA can't even stop it from happening at the same school repeatedly.

There may be societies where young people do not want alcohol, sex or material goods, but this is not one of them. You can educate people about drinking, drug use, safe sex, all of that. But why does the NCAA get to stand in judgment of students at the University of Miami who partied too much and took cash from a guy who was desperate to give it to them?

More than anything, this is what has me shaking my head: When Miami fired coach Randy Shannon last fall, there was some brief outrage because Shannon was widely regarded as one of the good guys in the profession. His players graduated. He had the third-best Academic Progress Rate of any coach in the nation. Isn't this what our institutions of higher learning are supposed to do? Educate?

Shannon's tenure will now be regarded as a renegade era of rule-breaking. Miami succeeded in the realm that should matter, but completely failed in the realm that the NCAA has decided matters more.

But after the Hurricanes get hit with sanctions, a new wave of recruits will come in, and it is foolish to think that those recruits will suddenly have a higher regard for the NCAA's rules than the last 30 years of recruits did. The idea of the amateur student-athlete is charming and appealing, in its way, but as this Yahoo! report shows, many people who are actually supposed to be amateur student-athletes find it silly. NCAA officers can enact a bunch of rules and give some great speeches. But they can't change that.