College football fans thought about the Miami football scandal for 45 seconds before they calmly said, to nobody in particular, "DEATH PENALTY!!!!"" Several members of the media also wondered if Miami would get the NCAA's Ultimate Punishment, Capital Letters Required.
This is a perfectly reasonable question in a parallel universe -- a universe in which the NCAA really believes it can enforce its system of amateurism. But in the universe where most of us live and Gilbert Arenas occasionally visits, there is zero chance of the NCAA actually shutting down the Miami football program for a year.
As Julie Roe Lach, the NCAA's vice president for enforcement, told The New York Times: "I have not heard it turn much to television bans or the death penalty. The majority of the ideas or support I keep hearing relate toward suspensions or postseason bans being the most powerful."
On Friday, NCAA president Mark Emmert told USA today that if the circumstances warranted it, he wouldn't be opposed to handing out the death penalty.
Of course, the death penalty would be more powerful than suspensions or postseason bans. But the NCAA doesn't want any part of it. The NCAA can't reach too far to enforce its rules, because then the whole system could collapse.
Shutting down the Miami program would severely weaken the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the six power conferences that control the Bowl Championship Series. The ACC needs its best programs to compete and, just as crucially, appear on television. Networks don't pay rights fees to show the death penalty.
To sum up: The NCAA is upset that Miami players took whatever cash they could grab, but the NCAA won't punish Miami too severely because its member schools want whatever cash they can grab.
Aren't "amateur" sports a blast?
As I have written several times, I think the NCAA should rethink its entire concept of amateurism. I recognize that many people disagree with me. But regardless of where you stand on that issue, this Miami case will likely leave you shaking your head.
At the moment, Miami looks like it is in boiling-hot water. If you read the damning Yahoo! Sports report, you think the Hurricanes have been caught dead-to-rights. Many players were named. The rogue booster, Nevin Shapiro, spoke on the record to both Yahoo! and the NCAA. There is paperwork to back it up. Shapiro has clear and indisputable ties to Miami. There are no reasonable doubts.
And yet ... well, the NCAA enforcement process does not work like the U.S. legal system. If a guy is accused of murder, the police don't ask him to look into whether he did it and get back to them. But the NCAA expects schools to help conduct investigations of themselves.
This is one reason why, as ESPN's Seth Wickersham wrote last year, "Even enforcement workers estimate that major investigations usually uncover less than 50 percent of the cheating at a given school." For fans, this means that when the NCAA goes easy on your rival, you can scream about the unfairness of it all. But when the NCAA goes easy on you, you can proudly declare that your scandal was overblown by the media.
Miami absolutely can and will defend itself. It won't be easy, but it can be done. And the beauty of the defense is that Miami can use the worst elements of Yahoo!'s story as part of its defense.
For example: You might be appalled that the players took money that came straight out of a Ponzi scheme. Of course you are. It's terrible. But Miami can say "Hey, this Shapiro guy was a once-in-a-lifetime liar and crook. He bilked intelligent people out of $900 million. Those folks had their life savings on the line and didn't suspect a thing. Why would we?"
Miami can also sell the NCAA that Shapiro was a single rogue booster, and this was not really a systemic problem. I'm not remotely saying I agree, but we're talking about Miami's defense. The NCAA handed the death penalty to the SMU football program in the 1980s. And that happened because SMU got in trouble for paying players, was warned to stop and continued paying players through almost-official channels. This is egregious, but not that egregious.
And by the way: If Shapiro is a proven liar and crook, can we really believe everything he says? I do. But Miami doesn't care about me. This is about the Committee on Infractions.
Yes, that is the same committee whose former chair, Paul Dee, was the longtime Miami athletic director. Dee hammered USC for its extra benefits case, and now it's pretty clear that Miami was just USC on a different coast. If anything, the Miami case looks worse because it is more widespread.
You and I see Dee as a hypocrite. But relationships are everything in life and I think Dee's history with the committee will actually help Miami. After all, the committee members all know him. He can lean on them privately to be gentle with the Hurricanes, but really, he doesn't even need to do that.
Presumably, the other committee members like and respected Dee. Do they really want to make him look like a fraud and a cheater -- and, by extension, call their own past work into question? I doubt it.
Once Miami is done using its former athletic director, the Hurricanes can use their former head coach. Miami fired Randy Shannon for the usual reason: He didn't win enough. But that's just a fact and who cares about facts? Miami can say that these violations happened under Shannon, who has since been fired. Why should the current program be penalized harshly for what happened in the past?
Miami can also point out that Shannon had the third-highest Academic Progress Rate of any coach in the country, so while it SEEMS like the program was out of control, it wasn't really.
Most college football fans are shaking their head at the Miami violations simply because it is Miami, which became a notorious outlaw program in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, the face of the team's troubles, fairly or not, was rapper Luther Campbell. Uncle Luke was famous at the time for his song Me So Horny, which seemed horribly offensive when it was released 22 years ago but would now be considered appropriate for cocktail hour at a bar mitzvah. America has loosened up.
Anyway, even Campbell can help Miami. In a piece for the MiamiNew Times excoriating Shapiro, Campbell wrote:
"I knew to stay away from him. So did Randy Shannon, who warned all of his assistants that if he caught them with Shapiro, he would fire them. Randy hated that beady-eyed defamer."
Yes, sure: This means Shannon apparently confided in Luther Campbell. But Miami can use that to help its defense.
Look, Miami is not going to get away without a scratch. The Hurricanes should pre-emptively ban themselves from a bowl game this year and dock a few scholarships, because those penalties are coming anyway. But you can forget about the death penalty. And don't be shocked if Miami wages a preposterous, disingenuous defense -- and it works.
I just hope they call Uncle Luke to testify. That would be awesome.