Dr. Donna Shalala
This is an article from the Aug. 29, 2011 issue
University of Miami
Coral Gables, Fla. 33124
Dear President Shalala:
I tapped out your address without having to look it up. That's because I've written a letter like this before, in 1995, to urge your predecessor, Edward (Tad) Foote, to drop football for the greater good of the University of Miami. President Foote didn't listen then. And little has changed since.
To judge by the particulars of an eight-year spree of lawlessness by one of your boosters, your football program has no regard for the rules, and your administration has no ability to enforce them. In an exhaustive report last week, Yahoo! Sports detailed how Nevin Shapiro—not just any booster, but one you permitted to fly on your team charter, lead your team onto the field, roam your sideline and fill your coffers so extravagantly that you named the players' lounge in the Hecht Athletic Center after him—plied athletes with improper benefits and collaborated with coaches in recruiting violations.
If anything, Yahoo! reporter Dan Wetzel, in a column about the 11-month investigation of your program by his colleague Charles Robinson, understated the tawdriness of the findings when he said, "For much of the 2000s, Miami was a de facto professional team and [Shapiro] was the owner." No NFL owner would have stocked hotel rooms and his own yacht with prostitutes and strippers for players' pleasure and sprung for an abortion when one of the women got pregnant. No NFL owner would have tried to install a stripper pole in his luxury box at Sun Life Stadium. No NFL owner would have offered cash bounties for incapacitating opposing quarterbacks, in the tradition of Luther (Uncle Luke) Campbell, the former 2 Live Crew frontman who set the standard for off-the-books Hurricanes boosterism back in the 1980s and '90s. (Shapiro so thoroughly surpassed that standard that your players, in homage, called him Li'l Luke.) In the pros, there would have been no compliance director for Shapiro to threaten, as he did yours in a drunken rage four years ago in the Orange Bowl press box. After that incident—when your athletic department finally discovered that Shapiro had a significant financial interest in a sports agency that represented many of the Miami players he had been showering with cash, gifts and services—your people, Shapiro says, did nothing.
You can't credibly claim that Shapiro was some rogue booster and that, now that he has been sentenced to prison for the next 20 years for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme, your athletic program will revert to a prelapsarian state. That's because Yahoo! implicated 73 athletes (including a dozen football players due to suit up this fall) as well as seven former football and basketball coaches and three staff members in violations committed from 2002 through '10. All would presumably be at risk for an unethical-conduct finding because each swore out an NCAA compliance statement every year. "From the start, I wasn't really challenged," Shapiro told Yahoo! at one point during 100 hours of interviews, at least 99 more than anyone in your compliance department seems to have done. "I did it because I could. And because nobody stepped in to stop me." Yahoo! splashed across the Web an image that suggests why nobody stepped in. It's a picture of you, beaming, next to Shapiro, who claims he had just handed you a check for $50,000 during a 2008 basketball fund-raiser.
This is terribly sad, and sadly familiar. During your time in Coral Gables, you've led Miami into the top 50 of U.S. News & World Report's national university rankings. President Foote had set your school on a similar path, only to have his effort to turn Suntan U into what he called "this generation's Stanford" undone by the football program.
"I have no tolerance for breaking rules," you told a reporter from TIME earlier this month, when he asked how you had seemingly cleaned up the Hurricanes' program. But you must have already had some idea of what Yahoo! would report—the NCAA has been investigating Shapiro's involvement with the Hurricanes' athletic department for five months.
Again, a familiar ring: "If something is broken, we will fix it," Foote said in '95. "I believe and predict that the difficulties that have plagued the team in the past are history."
Because they're clearly not, you should do what President Foote didn't and drop football, at least temporarily. But you should do more. In its most scandal-addled hour, college sports needs you. You served on the original Knight Commission, set up more than two decades ago to make sure athletic programs reflected their universities' educational mission. During your five years as chancellor, you both turned Wisconsin into a winner and helped create an environment in which the NCAA would make three major infractions findings. But all that then, and all this now, is precisely why you're the person to lead a new cleanup effort. You'll have the credibility of a Scared Straight! testifier among juvenile delinquents. By making clear that you would have accepted the death penalty for Miami if you hadn't chosen the harder route of taking the hemlock yourself, you will have the clout to lead the calls for systemic reform.
The NCAA won't dismantle your football program for you. It hasn't used the death penalty for football since SMU in 1987. With so many BCS-member schools now depending on the bowl and TV payouts that go to their conferences, the NCAA won't make an entire league pay for one school's crime. But you must shut the program down to do more than just disinfect it. Shut it down out of respect for former coach Randy Shannon, whom you fired after last season for not winning enough—even though he had guided the team to the nation's third-best Academic Progress Rate and seems to have been the only person in Coral Gables who wanted nothing to do with Shapiro, reportedly warning his players to avoid him and threatening to fire assistants caught dealing with him. Pay new coach Al Golden and his staff the full value of their contracts as penance for your negligence, and set them free to pursue other jobs. Complete humility is in order, particularly in light of what Paul Dee, your athletic director during most of the Shapiro era, did to USC in 2008 in his role as chair of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions: He excoriated the Trojans for the Reggie Bush affair, during which the athletic department had turned a blind eye to Bush's relationship with a prospective agent who was showering the player with cash and gifts. "High-profile athletes," Dee said, "demand high-profile compliance."
Yes, it will be hard. Cynics will cackle that you were scheduled to play an institutional cellmate, Ohio State, in a few weeks. Skeptics will point out that in 1905 the leading investigative reporting publication of its day, McClure's Magazine, ran a lengthy series about sugar-daddy boosters, no-show jobs and "tramp athletes" among the college powers of that era—today's Ivy League schools—and no one has figured out a solution in the century since. And there's sure to be foot-dragging; earlier this month, at a "reform summit" of more than 50 university CEOs including yourself, the NCAA finally looked poised to tie postseason eligibility to academic performance, something you and your Knight Commission colleagues had recommended a full decade ago.
But you earned your nickname, Boom Boom, by getting things done. Surely you still know your way around Capitol Hill, your old haunt as a Clinton cabinet member. Go there. Shout, don't whisper, in the ears of legislators and get them to pass a bill that will make it a federal offense to compromise a college athlete's eligibility with improper benefits—something states such as Texas and Oklahoma have already done at that level. (Say what you will about the Miami Madoff, but Shapiro may be right: Cheating is even worse in the SEC, where, he says, "the money is an endless river.") Then urge Congress to threaten to revoke college sports' nonprofit status unless the NCAA gets more aggressive.
What would this all entail? Mark Emmert, now entering his second year as NCAA president, seems to be open to increasing grants-in-aid by the few thousand dollars per student that it would take to cover the full cost of the college-athlete experience, including travel to and from campus as well as family members' attendance at games. Under Emmert, the NCAA also finally appears to be ready to require that scholarships be guaranteed for four years and not be subject to the season-to-season whims of coaches—even though it usually takes five years or more to earn a degree once you account for redshirting and injuries.
Using all of your substantial influence, here's what else you need to compel the NCAA to do:
• Overhaul the compliance process.
Compliance officers can't work for the schools they're scrutinizing. They need to answer to an autonomous body, ideally some agency certified by, but independent of, the NCAA. As it stands now, "they're paid to be firefighters, as opposed to police officers," says former agent Josh Luchs, who admits he flouted the rules before leaving the business to become a reform activist (SI, Oct. 18, 2010). Instead, Luchs says, think The Untouchables: "Not local cops on the take, but G-men."
• Fight for fiscal sanity.
We're entering what's sure to be a long era of austerity. As public universities go broke, taxpayers will rightly demand to know why college coaches are paid as much as their pro counterparts, when the rare profitable college team makes a tenth of what an NFL franchise does. Coaches, not to mention athletic directors and even conference commissioners, are pulling down absurdly escalating amounts of money, while the players who help them reap the windfall of marketing and broadcast cash get nothing. Meanwhile your own football program is in the red, as are those of all but 14 of the top 120 FBS schools. In the name of credibility, fairness and common sense, you need to lead the calls for salaries to be reined in. No one benefiting from the status quo wants to change it—but if you make progress on this front, we'll know your crusade has traction.
• Challenge the bowls.
The bowl system, in which top-tier officials collect the same obscene amounts as coaches and ADs, must be reformed. It's both a symptom and cause of the prevailing mess. The Fiesta Bowl's recently deposed CEO, John Junker, had Nevin Shapiro's taste for strip clubs and—if you simply substitute Junker's golfing trips and illegal political campaign contributions for Shapiro's magnums of champagne and bordello cruises—paid-for loyalty. He was finally brought to heel last March, despite an initial "internal investigation" by the Fiesta Bowl's board of directors that had all the credibility and effectiveness of your own fruitless compliance efforts. Bowl games have traditionally received public subsidies and enjoy nonprofit status, even though, with a few exceptions such as the Rose Bowl, their takes go more to half-million-dollar salaries than to charity. If "institutional control" really is an NCAA value, make it clear to the organization that it cannot subcontract the championship in your highest-profile sport to a cartel.
• Bring the hammer down.
Competitive advantages and spoils (scholarships, bowl appearances, TV revenue, even the very privilege of fielding a team) should be tied more directly to compliance. The NCAA needs to signal its seriousness by expanding its enforcement budget rather than essentially freezing it, as it did two decades ago. Existing sanctions clearly aren't serving as a deterrent. In 2008 the Committee on Infractions begged its NCAA overlords to toughen penalties for rule breakers, yet more than three years later nothing has been done. Stay on them to make sure it gets done.
Deliver change in the system and someday you could revive Hurricanes football in that reformed environment, where your team would have a fighting chance to represent your campus and city as they deserve. As I wrote to President Foote 16 years ago, "If you do it right, when the time comes to bring back football at 'this generation's Stanford,' your students and alumni will walk tall again."
The Chinese ideogram for crisis, wei ji, features two characters, one meaning danger and the other, opportunity. Remember what you said after the Knight Commission released its 1991 report on recruiting scandals, graduation rates and athletic department funding? "Don't blame the coaches, athletic directors or student-athletes. Blame it on us. It's our responsibility."
More than that, it's your opportunity. Seize it.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Senior Writer
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