Saying farewell to an incredibly busy offseason
I should start this off by saying that, from everything I've ever read, Myles Brand was a fine man and did a solid job as president of the NCAA. Recognizing his one shortcoming as head of the organization -- and trying to figure out what it means for college football today -- shouldn't take away from that recognition, or the fact that he did some great things for college athletics. If you want an indication of what he did for our sport, just take a look at the popularity of college football several years ago and see how it grew exponentially from an already-high level during Brand's term.
That said, whenever someone takes over an organization, he or she brings their own priorities to the job with them. When Myles Brand became president of the NCAA in 2003, he made it fairly obvious that he was going to focus on academics -- and finally ridding or nation of the scourge of Chief Illiniwek.
The new focus on academics was not without reason. (The campaign against Native American mascots is another thing altogether.) College sports had long before gained a reputation, fairly or not, as detracting from the educational mission of big-sports universities. Even if the most infamous cases of college players going to court and saying they couldn't read were a little overblown, it wasn't hard to see that the football and basketball players of 2003 were hitting the books less than some of their earlier counterparts. Even if it gave us the dreaded APR -- more on that later this week -- the drive to put more emphasis back on the classroom was a worthy goal.
But it's not unfair to wonder if that didn't come at the expense of enforcing the rules in college sports, particularly in college football. And as the allegations crawl out of the woodworks, we are left with one of two conclusions, neither particularly satisfying. Either the academic reformer and his organization were all too willing to turn a blind eye to corruption during his tenure at the helm, or college sports has suddenly become massively more corrupt since the end of 2009.
There's really no other way to explain the spasm of allegations we've seen just since the end of the 2009 football season. Off the top of my head, I can list Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Miami, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio State and South Carolina as teams who have either been implicated or had players or their families implicated in some form of football-related investigation. (Yes, Auburn fans, I worded that as carefully as possible; no one disputes that Cecil Newton tried to sell Cam to Mississippi State, only whether he did so to Auburn.) That's nine programs in the space of a year and a half. Something is clearly up here.
It could be that there was a time when it was possible to forget that the NCAA had rules, because they weren't being very stringently enforced. During Brand's tenure as head of the NCAA, there were 23 cases involving FBS football programs in which a school was at least given probation. There was one in which a postseason ban was leveled -- Mississippi State, in a case decided in 2004 -- amounting to 4.3 percent of the cases.
By comparison, there were 16 such cases in the six years before Brand took over. In four of those cases -- 25 percent of the total -- the program involved got slapped with a postseason ban. (Alabama and Kentucky both got at least a year in the Albert Means case; Alabama got two. Cal also got a year in a 2002 case, though why anyone would bother to punish Cal in the early part of the decade is something of a mystery, and Texas Tech was hit with one in a 1997 case.)
Probation also tended to be a lighter punishment in the Brand Era. Myles Brand's NCAA doled out 60 years of probation in the cases it handled, for an average of 2.61 years. In the same time frame before that, the NCAA was averaging an even three years a pop.
When the rules aren't enforced, or aren't enforced strictly, they might as well not exist. That's not to blame Brand for the corruption that was going on then or since in college football; to do so would be ridiculous and would ignore the fact that Brand was not the one breaking the rules. And I don't think Brand had any malicious or corrupt intent. It was probably a well-meaning effort to focus on the product on the field and the academic reform efforts that Brand was spearheading. But when you send a message that the worst a team has to worry about is a couple of years of probation, it becomes that much easier for a coach to ignore an incriminating email, for a tutor to provide improper help for a student, or for a father to try to sell his son to the highest bidder.
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As for the current round of corruption, Miami has once again emerged as a poster child. I have no doubt that most of you are familiar now with the Yahoo! Sports investigative report, and you should be if you're not. It's a sweeping, damning account of a corrupt booster that the university had to intentionally ignore as he paid players' way to prostitutes, raucous parties and even an abortion as part of a rampage through the NCAA's rulebook.
Here's how the NCAA can prove that it is truly interested in enforcing its rules: Give Miami the death penalty.
First of all, in case you're wondering, Miami is eligible for the death penalty as a repeat violator. Here's the relevant section of the rule, with emphasis added:
A school is a repeat violator if a second major violation occurs within five years of the start date of the penalty from the first case. The cases do not have to be in the same sport.
While a lot has been made of the fact that the NCAA could use a clause known as the "willful violators" clause to do away with the organization's four-year statute of limitations, that doesn't matter a great deal for death penalty purposes. The baseball program began its probation in February 2003, meaning that anything up until February 2008 would make Miami a repeat violator -- a date that is within the statute of limitations if the NCAA issues a letter of inquiry relatively quickly.
The reason the statute of limitations removal is important is because it would allow for a broader swath of booster Nevin Shapiro's wrongdoing to be considered in the death-penalty deliberations, and it would take away some of the urgency to issue a letter quickly.
But what's key to deciding whether Miami should get the death penalty comes down to the purpose of the death penalty. The reason it was instituted, and the reason it was eventually used against Southern Methodist, was to provide a tool to NCAA investigators for programs that just don't get it. Southern Methodist got the death penalty because it got in trouble with the NCAA for paying players and continued to pay players afterwards. (Their argument was that they wanted to honor the commitments they had made to the players, because SMU boosters were courtly Texas gentlemen like that.) That's the definition of missing the point.
Miami is a school that's missing the point. Alumni have given impermissible benefits to players over and over again. In Shapiro's story -- if it's true -- is an echo of earlier Miami scandals for things like bounties. And while they were moralizing against scofflaws like Southern Cal, its administrators were willfully ignorant of a booster giving millions of dollars in benefits to players.
Use the Southern Cal case a measuring stick. For hundreds of thousands of dollars of benefits to one player over a relatively short time period with one assistant coach allegedly aware or in a position to be aware of it, the Trojans lost 10 scholarships a year for three years and were hit with a two-year bowl ban. To meet that precedent, you have to do something absurd like give Miami four years' worth of scholarship losses -- 10 a year? or 15? -- and ban them from the postseason for three to five years. At that point, the death penalty might be the more humane option. At least you're being honest about it.
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And I don't think it will take Miami as long to recover as it took SMU. The Hurricanes have more recent tradition now than SMU had when its scandals began. Before the 1980s, when the problems at SMU became severe, the Mustangs had won a single conference championship since 1948. Their last national title had been in 1935. The rough equivalent of giving SMU the death penalty now would be giving Michigan State the death penalty -- and I would even argue that Michigan State has a better tradition now than SMU had in the 1980s. It was by no means a powerhouse.
Even if it's forced to take a year off, Miami will still be Miami. It will be in ACC -- a far cry from the rough-and-tumble Southwest Conference that SMU rejoined afer its two-year hiatus -- and will be able to get its fair share of recruits. That doesn't mean that it won't take the Hurricanes a decade or more to recover; it probably will. But it's hard to imagine a fair punishment for the program that won't cost Miami a decade.
Because someone has to get through to the boosters and, to a lesser extent because they have less control over it than you might think, the administration. The only thing these boosters will understand is losing Miami football for a year, in part because these are people whose attachment to Miami football almost makes Harvey Updyke Jr.'s affection for Alabama seem normal. The death penalty won't hurt the players that much -- they'll be free to transfer to whatever college they want to without sitting out a year. It will hurt the community and the broader university to an extent. But it will also deeply hurt the boosters like Shapiro that caused this problem in the first place.
We've tried doing nothing before, quaintly turning our heads to the side and hoping that corruption would magically go away, or that perhaps if we focused on cleaning up another side of the NCAA, it would have a disinfecting effect on the rest of the sport. It didn't work.
The less successful part of Myles Brand's legacy proves that much. We've had enough scandal in college football to fill a decade worth of offseasons. The hammer has to fall on Miami, whether you like it or not. Let's make sure it means something.