Linda Robertson: Regardless of verdict, UM and NCAA both need reform

University of Miami president Donna Shalala flashed the “U” sign with her hands as she left an Indianapolis hotel conference room Thursday during the NCAA hearing that is a precursor to a verdict on the school’s football and basketball transgressions.

It was an optimistic, feisty thumb’s up from UM’s leader, nicknamed “Boom Boom” by her employees for the brisk way she conducts meetings.

Shalala gave a convincing opening statement to the NCAA infractions committee, according to reports from the first of three days of closed-door, hush-hush proceedings, which should be open but, in keeping with the secretive paranoia of the NCAA and college athletic programs, are not.

Three years after booster Nevin Shapiro first unleashed his account of a decade of “impermissible benefits” — cash, gifts, dinners, drinks, yacht parties, strip club outings and an Escalade — and two years after the NCAA launched its investigation, UM finally gets to defend itself before the infractions committee, which is composed of college administrators and independent attorneys.

The UM hearing occurs at a pivotal time for the university, which has made momentous strides as an academic institution under Shalala, and the NCAA, which is mired in yet another crisis of credibility.

The UM case, which was botched by NCAA investigators and an enforcement department now being abandoned by some of its top staff, and doubly botched by NCAA president Mark Emmert’s delayed reaction to errors in judgment, puts an unflattering spotlight on two institutions seeking to regain control.

Whatever the outcome — and UM probably won’t know for months what, if any, additional punishment it will receive — both UM and the NCAA must emerge from the wreckage with concrete reforms.

Shapiro, a convicted Ponzi schemer, not only ingratiated himself with investors but also with UM — for entirely too long. From prison, he’s talking about his gambling habit again, recounting how he got inside information from UM football coaches. He’s desperate for attention and hoping to enlist the interest of a federal prosecutor, with the goal of reducing his 20-year sentence.

“My client almost spit out his food hearing about Nevin: ‘The guy had so much inside information, how did he lose $9 million gambling?’ ” Miami attorney Joel Hirschhorn said of Las Vegas sports handicapper Adam Meyer, who placed bets for Shapiro. “Nevin is shrewd, but that word doesn’t have a good connotation. He did a lot of damage to UM, which did a lot of damage to itself by letting him get too close.”

Shapiro got to hang around UM sports in exchange for his donations. Then he ran amok. The result, if you’re an NCAA member and break its rules, is going through the looking glass of the NCAA.

Before a recent trip to Indianapolis for a Heat game, I attempted to arrange an interview at NCAA headquarters. But after an odd email and phone exchange with a media relations department that seemed to have no desire for media relations, not even a conversation was granted. I wandered through the NCAA’s Hall of Champions, saw all the banners touting the healthy intertwining of academics and athletics, but when I stuck my head in the lobby of the NCAA’s office building, a security guard gave me an aggressive, “Who are you here to see?”

Well, it would have been nice to see somebody, but I might as well have been visiting the CIA. The transparency that Emmert promised when he became NCAA president hasn’t materialized.

UM has been just as opaque. Shalala has never revealed what is in the Notice of Allegations, which naturally prompts the question of what UM has to hide at this point, three years down the road.

Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky is chair of the infractions committee, a role once occupied by the late Paul Dee, UM’s former athletic director. Dee presided over the Reggie Bush case, which led to sanctions against the Southern California football program and the stripping of Bush’s Heisman Trophy. Talk to Southern Cal boosters today and they remain bitter over what they consider unduly harsh punishment for the actions of one player and his aspiring agent.

Jim Tressel lost his job at Ohio State and has yet to be rehired because he lied about players’ free tattoos. Butch Davis, the athletic director and the chancellor at North Carolina all lost their jobs as a result of the scandal in Chapel Hill, which has yet to be fully resolved.

These cases never end well, even when self-imposed penalties are applied as mea culpa mitigation. The collateral damage ripples through the years. Just ask Michigan, where all evidence of the Fab Five era was ripped from the rafters.

UM can’t win, given the negative publicity for the school, which revives the dormant taint of past scandals. But it can fight for a fair sentence.

UM can bury the poison spread by Shapiro. The NCAA can, too, although it faces a more arduous cleanup.

It’s time, at long last, to throw away the key.

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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