By Dan Rubin
A few weeks ago, I gave you a piece where I argued the NCAA Infractions Committee would finally need to drop the proverbial hammer and execute the “Death Penalty.” The rule, used only once in 1987 for Southern Methodist, allows the governing body to ban a college team from anything ranging from informal workouts to actually cancelling two seasons of play. A Death Penalty ruling would prove catastrophic for teams already on probation, threatened with the shadow cast of Southern Methodist’s two-plus decades of futility following their Death Penalty.
It is time for the death penalty to come back. Schools like Ohio State, USC, and Georgia Tech are, in essence, daring the NCAA to use the ruling once again. After the apocalyptic affect the Death Penalty had on SMU, arguments were made from insiders and outsiders that the NCAA is now, for all intents and purposes, afraid to use the ruling. It is time for the ruling to be executed as a way to flex some muscle and to restore the perceived purity and moral essence of the game back the world of college football.
The Death penalty has been used only once, against the SMU Mustangs from 1987 through the 1988 seasons, cancelling them both. The penalty’s formal name in the NCAA rulebook is the “Repeat Offenders” rule, and it grants the NCAA unprecedented power to shutter a program. The rule states that programs flagrantly violating NCAA rules and policies within five years of being on probation are subject to sanctions that include up to two years without formal competition. That means no recruiting, no scholarships, no formal scrimmages, no television, and no games of any kind, regular season and post season. The offending program is effectively abolished for as long as the NCAA deems necessary.
SMU was on probation when allegations of slush fund and “pay-to-play” policies arose. Boosters paid recruits and players in a manner that reflected professional contracts; high profile recruits made upwards of thousands of dollars per game. The SMU boosters felt it was their word and their code to continue to pay committed money to players they were already paying but to halt it with newer recruiting classes. This meant that the Mustang program, while on probation, continued to give money and gifts to its players. It was a scandal that had roots in SMU’s Board of Governors, as chairman Bill Clements, who would eventually win election as governor of Texas, was involved in the scandal.
Because of the execution of the Mustang program, the university chose to skip the 1988 season. When the Mustangs returned in 1989, they were a shell of their former selves, hitting a low point when the Houston Cougars pummeled the team by a score of 95-21. SMU would not qualify for a bowl game again until 2009, 20 years after it first returned from the penalty.
Since the 1987 ruling, it’s become evident the NCAA is hesitant to drop the death penalty on a team. They had the option of it when dealing with Alabama’s scandal during the 1990s, but they decided against it. They also had the option when dealing with Baylor basketball in the early 2000s, and the governing body decided against that as well. It became clear with SMU that the death penalty had the very real possibility to take a successful program and destroy it for the foreseeable future.
That leads us to the Miami Hurricanes. Ohio State, USC, Georgia Tech, and Florida State have all been affected by probation in recent years, but even the Reggie Bush scandal at USC pales in comparison to what’s happening in South Florida. According to a Yahoo! Sports report, Nevin Shapiro, a Miami booster, provided improper gifts for a time period extending from 2002-2010. Since the Hurricanes were on probation from 1997-2000, that puts Shapiro’s offenses clearly within the five-year period required for the Repeat Offenders penalty.
For Miami, the scandal is just as far reaching as it was for SMU. For a span of around eight years, Shapiro provided incentive payments and gifts to then-prospective and current student-athletes who were part of the Hurricane program. According to Yahoo!, this also included prospective recruits such as DaQuan Jones and players then in uniform such as Vince Wilfork, Jonathan Vilma, and Jon Beason. The final number claimed by Shapiro is upwards of 72, a number he intends to support with bank statements and documented records
Shapiro gave Miami players monetary gifts (a flagrant NCAA violation), as well as use of his yacht and cars. There are also reports that he paid for strippers and/or prostitutes, which harkens to the seediness of the Minnesota Vikings Sex Cruise scandal from a few years back. Shapiro also allegedly paid for an abortion for a woman impregnated by one of the players. Shapiro even went as far to allegedly put bounties of up to $5,000 on Florida State’s Chris Rix and the University of Florida’s Tim Tebow.
Reputation of the school: SMU had the reputation of being a school that got too good too quickly, while Miami (these days at least) is a traditional power with a rich history of national championships. SMU was from the “good ol’ boy” flashiness that embodied Dallas decadence in the 1980s; Miami is known as a bunch of kids from the streets of the hardened areas of Liberty City and South Florida.
The Miami Hurricanes are known for being extremely controversial, dating back to its Howard Schnellenberger beginnings. Miami
players once stepped off their plane for the Fiesta Bowl wearing fatigues and then there was the unforgettable FIU-Miami brawl on October 14, 2006. Miami’s history has Brian Pata’s shooting death, and players who are known for their nastiness (see: Ray Lewis). At one point in the 1990s, Miami’s reputation was so bad that a Sports Illustrated cover story from June of 1995 proposed the shuttering of the program.
Miami’s reputation is probably what will hurt it the most. The NCAA has already changed its rules because of the Hurricanes once before; they instituted the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting largely because of how brash the ‘Canes of the 1980s were. Where the NCAA was licking its chops at SMU because it had no reputation, Miami has one step worse – a bad reputation. It’s not USC, UCLA, Texas, or Michigan. It’s certainly not Notre Dame (remember Convicts vs. Catholics?). Its reputation is dirty and stained, and while they’ve been able to escape severe punishment in the past, it’s probably not going to happen this time. As a side note, I’m sure it’s not helping that the booster in question (Shapiro) is already in jail for running a $900 million Ponzi scheme.
Culture Surrounding College Football: In the new era, it’s been one scandal after another for the past couple of years. Ohio State, USC, Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Oregon, UNC, and Alabama have all been investigated. Last year’s Heisman Trophy went to a player that was borderline ineligible. The two teams from the national 2010 National Championship game (Auburn and Oregon) have both had trouble either with the NCAA or with the law in recent months. The NCAA is being made to look stupid, and something tells me that they’re getting sick and tired of it.
The NCAA, hopping mad, is ready to make a statement. Most pundits are thinking “death penalty.” We don’t know if that’s going to happen, but it’s a very real possibility.
If the NCAA is as scared of the death penalty as everyone believes, then Miami is going to be whacked with severe sanctions, but not lose the team. It’s possible the NCAA goes after Butch Davis, Larry Coker and Randy Shannon, who are the Hurricane head coaches before and during this era. It’s possible they change the rules governing who and what can be around the program, and it’s possible that the NCAA send a strong warning to the rest of college sports on the whole that this is the last straw. The NCAA might not want to punish the university, which raises millions of dollars for its other programs through football. The use of the death penalty is assumed by some, mentioned by most, but definitely not assured. It feels like the NCAA is not going to let this one slide. There’s been too much. It’s time for a change, and this time, we’re not sure if the storm approaching South Florida is going to be an easy one to recover from.