Allegations that a convicted Ponzi schemer masterminded what could be the most shocking scandal in college football history come at a pivotal moment for the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Already in the past 18 months, college sports' governing body has investigated or sanctioned some of the most powerful programs in college football, ranging from the University of Southern California (USC) to Ohio State and Michigan. Just last week, NCAA President Mark Emmert convened a conference of the chief executives from 50 universities to address how to reform college sports.
The NCAA has clearly tried to send a message that wanton rulebreaking in college sports – such as improper perks for college athletes – is coming to an end.
Now comes word from Nevin Shapiro, the recently jailed former University of Miami football booster, who told Yahoo! Sports he treated 73 current and former players to prostitutes, jewelry, and cash from 2002 to 2010.
Perhaps as never before, the NCAA's credibility as the arbiter of collegiate athletics is on the line, and that means the "death penalty" – shutting down Miami Hurricanes football for at least a year – remains a possibility.
Even before Mr. Shapiro's allegations came to light Tuesday, critics have with increasing intensity called for wholesale changes within the NCAA, saying it is too beholden to the college presidents and conference commissioners whose institutions directly benefit from the billions of dollars brought in by college football and basketball.
“These NCAA violations have been going on forever. Nothing new here, just the latest issue. The system is not broken. It was never workable,” tweeted Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst and former player at Duke University.
Some critics say players should be paid for bringing in so much money. Others, including legendary Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, suggest breaking off men's basketball and football into their own entities, since they bring in far more money than any other college sports and each has unique challenges.
Regardless, Miami is emerging as a test case, with enormous pressure on the NCAA to get any potential punishments right.
For one, two people involved in NCAA rulemaking and enforcement were top officials at Miami during Shapiro's booster years, raising questions about the NCAA's ability to oversee such a highly charged case.
Moreover, the University of Miami has long been seen as one of college football's most troubled programs – to the point that the cover of the June 12, 1995, issue of Sports Illustrated read: "Why the University of Miami should drop football." In the article – an open letter to then-university President Edward "Tad" Foote – it continued: "For all its victories, Miami football has been worse in more ways over a longer period of time than any other intercollegiate athletic program in memory."
In discussing the NCAA's attempts to crack down on rules violators at last week's conference, Mr. Emmert said everything needs to be on the table. "If that includes the death penalty, I'm fine with that," he said, according to USA Today.
Others have argued that Shapiro's actions, if true, would appear to be among the worst in the sport's history. "The Yahoo! story that broke – erupted, really – on Tuesday covers nearly everything on the Whopper Allegation Checklist. Payoffs to current and former Hurricanes, improper benefits for recruits, coaches in the know and on the take, willfully ignorant administrators," wrote Pat Forde on ESPN.com.
In the Yahoo! Sports article, Shapiro alleged that nobody at Miami or the NCAA lifted a finger to put an end to weekend parties, illegal gifts, and even an alleged practice of promising Miami players secret bonuses for putting big hits on players, like former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
"I did it because I could," Shapiro, who was convicted in June for running a $930 million real-estate Ponzi scheme, said of his spending. "And because nobody stepped in to stop me."
The NCAA said Wednesday it has spent five months investigating the report.
"If the assertions are true, the alleged conduct at the University of Miami is an illustration of the need for serious and fundamental change in many critical aspects of college sports," said Emmert in a statement.
Complicating matters for the NCAA is the fact that University of Miami President Donna Shalala and former Miami Athletic Director Paul Dee both have had prominent positions in the NCAA's reform movement.
Ms. Shalala, the former Clinton administration Health and Human Services secretary, is a member of a new NCAA rules-writing committee and recently lauded her own efforts to police the Hurricanes sideline for suspicious guests. Mr. Dee was recently the NCAA's infractions chief and last year docked USC two bowl games for inappropriate gifts given to former standout Reggie Bush, chiding the university for failing to police its players off the field.
"Once again, the NCAA's entire enforcement process is under the microscope," writes Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel.
Neither Shalala nor Dee has been directly implicated in any improprieties, but their close ties to the Hurricanes football program has given critics of the NCAA added ammunition. NCAA investigators interviewed Shalala this week as part of its probe of Shapiro's allegations.
"I am upset, disheartened, and saddened by the recent allegations leveled against some current and past student-athletes and members of our Athletic Department," said Shalala in a statement. " We will vigorously pursue the truth, wherever that path may lead, and I have insisted upon complete, honest, and transparent cooperation with the NCAA from our staff and students."
Added Dee, who is no longer affiliated with the NCAA: "We didn't have any suspicion that [Shapiro] was doing anything like this," he recently told a Florida newspaper. "He didn't do anything to cause concern."
The NCAA's investigations are ongoing.