The Yahoo! Sports story regarding the Miami Hurricanes football team broke on August 16th, when the first report was publicized that Nevin Shapiro, a federal criminal currently serving a 20-year sentence for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme, admitted to committing a number of illegal activities with Miami Hurricanes players over a span of 8 years from 2002-2010. Shapiro admitted to providing money or other illegal benefits to 72 players over this span, and claims at least seven Miami coaches were involved or knew about the activities during this span. As one of the leading Miami Hurricanes boosters, Shapiro reportedly admits to have paid players to recruit them to Miami, paid players “bounties” for injuring opponent players, bought them meals, invited them for trips out on his yacht, provided the money for purchasing an engagement ring, purchased strippers and hookers for players, and even paid for an abortion.
The summary of the amount of illegal activity committed in this time span is jaw-dropping. But more alarming is the fact that this occurred over a span of eight years, with a number of coaches and possibly administrators supposedly being aware of the activities occurring, and failing to do anything about it.
The depth of this case makes the recent Ohio State University violations look like child’s play – and the NCAA hasn’t even finished ruling against Ohio State yet. But the real question here is whether the Miami Hurricanes’ football program deserves the most feared penalty of all – the death penalty. The death penalty has only been handed out five times in the history of collegiate athletics, and just once in college football. In 1986, Southern Methodist University was handed the death penalty. As a result, they were not allowed to play football in 1987, and were only allowed to play home games in 1988. Among other stipulations, SMU also lost 55 scholarships over 4 years, making future recruiting an additional burden to overcome.
No one knew the type of long-term implications such a sanction would have. SMU had been a prominent football program at the time, with one national championship under its belt and ten Southwest Conference titles. However, it took SMU over 20 years to return to a bowl game, which just recently occurred in the Hawaii Bowl in 2009.
What brought SMU the death penalty? The primary reason was for being caught paying 21 players a total of about $61,000. This was essentialy paid out as monthly payments to specific players, who were given “contracts” to come play for SMU. While this is a lot of money, and a lot of players, the revelations about the recent Miami Hurricanes violations are shaping up to be worse than SMU’s violations.
If the NCAA investigation finds Shapiro’s confessions to be true, a total of 72 players could be found guilty for having received payments for a large variety of items – meals, bounty payments, ring payments, money for strippers, etc. The fact that seven coaches may have known, but turned a blind eye to the matter and allowed this to occur over a span of years, would be the icing on the cake. But everyone has wondered, since the famed death penalty was served to SMU in 1986, could the NCAA really do that again? After seeing how long it took SMU’s football program to recover just to appear in a bowl game, most have speculated that the penalty could not be issued ever again.
But, with the increasing number of violations seen over the last several years, the NCAA has admitted it is itching to make an example out of someone; to show it is serious about the rules, and to make it clear that no one will walk away lightly if found guilty of trying to cheat the system. NCAA Presidents recently met, and agreed that a crackdown is needed. “Coaches, athletes and boosters should be afraid now if they’re going to go out and break rules,” Penn State president Graham Spanier following the meeting.
So the Miami Hurricanes have much to worry about. Do they deserve the death penalty? A lot will depend on how much of Shapiro’s allegations are confirmed to be true. If the NCAA confirms the amount of players, coaches, and money involved, I believe the death penalty would be justified. This would turn out to be probably the worst case of NCAA violations of all time.
But considering how the landscape of NCAA football has changed over the last 25 years, I lean toward the fact that the NCAA will likely issue some other severe punishments instead of a death penalty. College football is now a cash-generating machine, where barring a team from playing football severely affects billion-dollar television contracts and monetary partnerships with other universities. If Miami is not allowed to play, it would completely alter the television revenue and major contracts would have to be restructured. With so much money at stake, and with the NCAA keeping in mind what happened to SMU’s long-term program after receiving the penalty, I think the NCAA will decide on a harsh punishment that falls just shy of a death penalty. Along these lines, I would suspect a multi-year bowl ban (maybe 3-5 years), a large reduction in football scholarships, and perhaps other short-term monetary sanctions that prohibit the football program from achieving its normal revenue stream.