NCAA is Dead: Go Ahead, Break All Rules

Welcome to the new prison-break anarchy of college sports, where sleazebags are allowed to roam freely and throw money and gifts and even prostitutes at athletes without fear of severe consequences for a program. These days, when rampant misconduct and cheating are exposed, an institution receives a mere slap on the wrist and a shared wink of the eye. This is what happens when a monstrous pot of gold — $7.3 billion alone from ESPN, beginning next season — overwhelms any interest within the TV-and-power-conferences empire to enforce ethics and morals via harsh, crippling punishments.

The NCAA effectively is reduced to silly putty, letting the networks and major schools make their fortunes with no regard for rules.

Go ahead, cheat your asses off. No one cares anymore, least of all the once-almighty governing body of intercollegiate athletics.

Once the deliverer of harsh sanctions ranging from bowl bans to 30-scholarship losses to death penalties, the NCAA officially is a 98-pound weakling that is crying uncle, waving a white flag and asking for mommy all at once. Pathetic, isn’t it? And very revealing about the revolution in progress in a kingdom with billions at stake — and, in the case of football, a closed shop of 64 programs ready to do anything necessary to grab the biggest shares, as if scandalized Oklahoma State and so many others aren’t doing so already. What we need is the presence of Mark Emmert, the beleaguered NCAA president, at a news conference, where he would admit he’s disturbed by several investigative missteps committed recently by his enforcement staff and would vow to clean up the mess and keep college sports clean in the perilous years ahead.

There’s a better chance of Johnny Manziel becoming a trappist monk. You see, the NCAA doesn’t want to monitor college football anymore. It wants its share of the money pie, wants ESPN and the major conferences and programs to have their shares of the pie, and after that, whatever. Everyone can just police themselves from now on, OK? All of which leads to frightening possibilities: unrestrained rules-breaking, no serious enforcement arm and no investigative work by ESPN, which, as we saw in its cowardly and telling detachment from the PBS anti-concussions documentary (as ordered by NFL boss Roger Goodell), clearly is prioritizing money-making and business-relationship preservation over its supposed mission as an elite investigative-journalism unit. All of these people, including the university presidents enabling the debacle, are in bed with one another and united by the pot of gold.

So why would any of them, including the NCAA, want to blow whistles on their multi-billion-dollar party?

It’s no coincidence that the NCAA’s soft penalty in the Manziel case, in which the reckless Texas A&M quarterback was alleged to have taken five-figure sums for signing autographs, was followed by the wishy-washiest of sanctions this week for the University of Miami. To refresh memories, the salacious details are these: A convicted felon named Nevin Shapiro, serving 20 years for plotting a $930-million Ponzi scheme, reached the NCAA from his prison cell 2 1/2 years ago and fessed up about his dirty deeds as an out-of-control Miami booster. Between 2002 and 2010, Shapiro was allowed enough access into the football and basketball programs to funnel his love for all things Hurricanes into millions of dollars in extra benefits to athletes, coaches and recruits. Large chunks of that money went to players such as Vince Wilfork and Antrel Rolle, now making NFL millions. You name it — cash, meals, clothes, jewelry, hotels, airline tickets, prostitutes, yacht parties, bottle-service bashes on South Beach — Shapiro was there to pay for his boys.

Again, the university let him stay for at least eight years without once raising an eyebrow. This would be a flagrant case of what used to be the NCAA’s cardinal sin — a lack of institutional control — which looks even worse with Shapiro’s donations of $500,000 to the athletic department. When Shapiro went to jail, he sought a loan from Miami basketball coach Frank Haith, who refused; but a since-departed assistant basketball coach, Jorge Fernandez, came up with $7,000 for Shapiro. Which is one reason Haith, now the coach at Missouri, has been suspended five games, which isn’t nearly enough. Football coach Al Golden was spared a suspension because he wasn’t hired at Miami until December 2010. In sum, the NCAA said it probed 18 allegations of misconduct — a total of 79 issues encompassing those charges — and interviewed 81 people.

“The case is among the most extraordinary in the history of the NCAA,” said Britton Banowsky, chair of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions. Indeed, said Banowsky, Miami was woefully lacking of institutional control and was blind to most of the wrongdoing over a 10-year period.

“A culture of noncompliance,” the NCAA said of Miami.

And yet, this is what the NCAA came up with as a punishment:

No bowl ban.

A loss of just nine football scholarships over three years.

A loss of one basketball scholarship each of the next three years.

Three years of probation for the general athletic program.

That’s it.

In other words, rather than make an example of a program that let a creep become an ATM for Miami athletics for almost a decade, the NCAA gave Miami a break. Just as it gave Texas A&M a break. Why? Oh, maybe because Johnny Football is a huge money-maker and ratings-grabber for college football and the TV networks. Oh, maybe because Miami is a major player in the current Bowl Championship Series race and has a big game Nov. 2 at Florida State, which could launch the Hurricanes toward the national title game. It would be much easier to punish a ninth-place outlier somewhere, but we sure don’t want to interfere with ESPN/ABC’s big game in two weekends now, would we?

Problem is, the crimes at MIami — which has been in trouble with the NCAA most of my adult life and is a multiple-repeat offender — are similar to those that left SMU with the death penalty in the ’80s. And the sins are more elaborate than what brought crippling penalties to USC — the loss of 30 scholarships over a three-year period and a two-year bowl ban — in 2011. And what about basketball programs that have been nailed severely in recent years — Indiana and Tennessee among them? How do you think they feel now that the NCAA has turned to mush?

“We have always felt that our penalties were too harsh. This decision only bolsters that view,” USC athletic director Pat Haden said.

Where is the consistency, the uniformity? The NCAA says it was impressed with Miami’s self-imposed penalties, including a two-year bowl ban. Closer to the truth, the NCAA lost leverage when an investigator tried to do business with Shapiro’s attorney, a misstep that was pounced on by Miami president Donna Shalala — yes, THAT Donna Shalala. She politicked her way into a sweet ruling, whereas USC and its athletic director at the time, Mike Garrett, chose a defiant stance that didn’t help matters. In the end, a shallow and cheap victory for Miami is another sickening defeat for higher academia in America.

“Each case is unique. No doubt folks will have a difference of opinion on whether the penalties were too severe or too light,” said Banowsky, appearing on a conference call. “We don’t put cases against each other based on the unique nature of each case. In this case, we felt the institution’s self-imposed penalties were significant and unprecedented. The level of cooperation was commendable. Those were factors that weighed into the committee’s thinking.”

Yeah, sure.

“We didn’t get off easy,” argued Miami AD Blake James, per the Associated Press.

No. You basically got off scot-free.

Get used to the absence of justice. College sports is off the rails, and for all the good work done by Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports and whatever is left of investigative journalism, none of it matters when there are no cops or judges or jails. Even when a convicted felon calls and spills the beans, the NCAA can’t convert the turnover into points. Or, worse, doesn’t want to convert it.

“I thought I was dealing with the FBI. Instead, I was dealing with a bunch of clowns,” Shapiro told Sports Illustrated over the summer, speaking from federal prison in Louisiana. “I gave the NCAA the body, the weapon and the DNA evidence on a platter, and they found a way to screw this up.”

Anarchy works that way.