University of Miami Football Scandal: Time to Kill the Program

Charges that University of Miami athletes got cash and hookers should trigger the death penalty, says Buzz Bissinger.

Joel Auerbach / Getty Images

When news of the athletics scandal at the University of Miami started exploding Wednesday, I just wasn’t feeling it. It seemed strange, given the unprecedented size and scope of the allegations. Between 2002 and 2010, a single booster, according to a remarkably exhaustive investigation by Yahoo Sports, allegedly gave “thousands of impermissible benefits”—from money to sex—to as many as 73 different football and basketball players.

But so many colleges have bent the rules in the great academic act of winning meaningless football and basketball games that it was hard for me to muster much excitement. Improper conduct has happened too many times in the past. It seemed bound to happen too many times in the future, given that college coaches and college players are opportunists, liars, loyal to no one but their own careers and their own pockets, manipulative, duplicitous, morally autistic and clinically narcissistic in equal measure to the ego that requires them to excel.

But the more I read about the Miami scandal Wednesday night, the more my outrage meter began to move into the red zone. There may even be a rare opportunity to do something bold and decisive here, with reverberations far beyond the palm trees of the Miami campus at Coral Gables.

Maybe, just maybe, there finally will be some recognition that the major college sports of basketball and football are rotten, and that the only way to root out the rot is with the tandem action of draconian punishment and cutting the snake off at the head. No more slaps on the wrist by the NCAA with the taking away of scholarships or depriving teams of Bowl game or playoff appearances. Now is the perfect time to send a loud and clear message to other schools about what the consequences will be if you flagrantly break the rules.

Here is what must happen:

1. The Miami football program must be given the death penalty by the NCAA. Not for one year. Or two. But forever. Gone. Kaput. Who will really suffer? Only the Wahoos who care about the Hurricanes more than they do their families—and need to get another life, anyway. The coaches? The players? If they have talent, they will all land somewhere else. In the real world, three strikes and you’re out. In the athletic world, three strikes and you’re just beginning. Who benefits? A university that perhaps may realize its primary mission is, can you believe it, academic and not athletic.

It isn’t as if the Miami program has been the white dove of peace in the past. No college football team has had a greater legacy of disgust. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, here is a sampling:

In 1994 there were allegations that Miami-based rapper Luther Campbell and former Miami players performing in the NFL were offering cash for big hits—50 bucks a fumble, 200 bucks an interception.

In May 1995 an NCAA investigation found that positive drug tests of various Hurricane players had been withheld by the football program a week before the January Orange Bowl. Later in 1995, the NCAA found Miami guilty of eight different categories of rules violations. Among them: excessive financial awards, Pell Grant fraud, pay-for-play payouts, and failure to follow its own drug-testing policy. In 2006 Miami football players were involved in two brawls, one with LSU in the Peach Bowl and the other during the regular season with Florida International, in which safety Anthony Reddick was said to have used his helmet as a weapon.

2. Miami president Donna Shalala must immediately resign, either voluntarily or under pressure. Her prepared statement in the aftermath of the Miami tsunami—“I am upset, disheartened and saddened by the recent allegations leveled against some current and past student-athletes and members of our Athletic Department”—is a shameless renouncing of her job description. She is responsible for what takes place at the school, is she not? That includes the athletic department, does it not?

Shalala is a well-known sports proponent herself: When she was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, one of her biggest priorities was revamping the football program into a top-10 power. She achieved her goal. She is hardly some sports naif. She knows what goes on and what doesn’t, what should happen and should not.

But resignation is not enough. She should be hauled before Congress, where the allegations against Miami are 10 times more serious than all the steroid nonsense paraded about in Washington.

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Once she has done her murky dance of denial, a grand jury should be convened. If it turns out she did know the outrageous conduct of booster Nevin Shapiro—such as filling virtually an entire hotel floor with prostitutes for Miami players to gorge on, like grapes—she should be charged with perjury. It’s a wobbly charge. But if it was good enough for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, it certainly is good enough for Shalala, whose university is now a national disgrace. She can’t say she did not know Shapiro: Among the exhibits produced by Yahoo Sports was a picture of Shalala next to Shapiro as he gave a $50,000 check to the athletic department at a fundraiser.

3. Booster programs supporting football and basketball at all colleges and universities should be banned. The money these boosters give out only leads to ethical and, in some cases, criminal compromises. Nevin Shapiro, who is currently serving a 20-year federal sentence for overseeing a $930 million Ponzi scheme, had ridiculous access to the Miami football and basketball programs despite the fact that at least some coaches saw him for what he was—a little 5-foot-5 rat of a white guy who, for his own psychosexual reasons, obviously got his rocks off hanging around African-American college athletes with big muscles and great leaping ability.

Perhaps he should have been given rat poison. Instead, he gained carte blanche to Miami players. It’s only a guess, but I imagine the $150,000 contribution he made for a student-athlete lounge at the school did not hurt any. According to the Yahoo Sports investigation, much of it based on interviews with Shapiro, he supplied players with an all-you-can-eat buffet of illegal perks that included money, televisions, gourmet meals, rides on his yacht, paying for an abortion, and an alleged $50,000 payoff to one player through a sports agency Shapiro says he once co-owned so the player would become a client. Shapiro also played the bounty game, offering $5,000 to any player who knocked either Florida quarterback Tim Tebow or Florida State quarterback Chris Rix out of the game.

Sadly and typically, too many members of the Miami sports community are taking the defensive crouch of the persecuted victim. Former star Miami quarterback and current board of trustees member Bernie Kosar bemoaned how the players and coaches on this year’s team are “busting themselves in 95-degree heat, getting ready for a promising season, and now there’s a cloud hanging over them.” Former Miami coach Jimmy Johnson called Shapiro a “scumbag,” a little like George W. Bush calling Rick Perry a stupid Texan, given the team’s reputation as “Thug U” when Johnson was at the helm. Al Golden, the new coach at Miami, said the allegations will only bring the team “closer together.”

Maybe Golden is right. The team should pull together—for one final meeting in which Golden announces football at Miami is no more.

Will the sun still come up the next day? Maybe not in Coral Gables. But in the rest of the world, the real world, the weather should be fine.