She stands barely five feet tall, but she tackled healthcare and welfare as a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet. She played second base for the West Boulevard Annie Oakleys as a kid in Cleveland in the 1950s. She lived in a mud hut and coached soccer in Iran while serving in the Peace Corps in the 1960s.
It should come as no surprise, then, that University of Miami President Donna Shalala — a power-broker they call “Boom Boom” — was unafraid to take on the NCAA over the Nevin Shapiro booster investigation.
Tuesday morning, after accepting the NCAA’s sanctions against the Hurricanes athletic program and deeming them “fair,” Shalala told the Miami Herald “it was very clear we broke NCAA rules, and we admitted that and were penalized appropriately for it.”
She then apologized to the fans and community, shed light on how she handled media criticism, and explained what she and the school had learned from the scandal and how they are working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Shalala drew on her experience as a shrewd politician throughout the 2 ½-year saga, calculating every move with the help of her legal staff.
She firmly stood her ground from the start. When she had to, she went on the attack, criticizing the NCAA investigative process with pointed statements last February.
With each swing, the 72-year-old Shalala became more of a hero to the UM faithful, who revel in the Hurricane tradition of swagger and feistiness.
Tuesday morning, as news of the NCAA’s sanctions against the UM program began to spread, callers on sports talk radio praised Shalala’s toughness the way they would a Hurricanes linebacker after a memorable tackle. It was a far cry from the harsh criticism she faced when the scandal became public in August 2011. Then, many fans on the same radio shows called for her ouster.
A “Fire Donna Shalala” page showed up on Facebook that summer, with comments such as: “She ruined the athletic program and is going to stand quietly by while the kids take the fall. Who’s going to force her to answer for herself?”
Shalala was under so much fire that Leonard Abess, chairman of UM’s Board of Trustees, released a “vote of confidence” statement urging the university community to stand behind its leadership.
Shalala has been in politics long enough to know how to navigate the court of public opinion. Although she is friendly, she is not swayed by emotion. She was taught to be tough by her mother, Edna, who is 102 years old, practiced law until age 90, played competitive tennis well into her 80s, and was one of the first Arab-Americans to graduate from Ohio State.
Like her mother, Shalala, of Lebanese Catholic roots, has busted through glass ceilings her entire life, never caring too much about what people think of her. She was the first Arab-American to serve in a Cabinet position when Clinton named her secretary of Health and Human Services. She was the first woman to lead a Big 10 college — the University of Wisconsin.
“No one likes to be criticized, but I’m sort of used to being criticized,” Shalala told the Herald in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I’ve been in public office for a very long period of time. I don’t take it personally. I know people have our best interest at heart, and they were disgusted and upset. It’s part of the responsibility of a leader to take both the praise and the criticism.”
Harry Rothwell, manager of AllCanes sporting goods near campus, said he gives Shalala “high marks” for how she handled the mess.
“Donna gained a lot of respect when she finally lashed out at the NCAA back in February,” Rothwell said. “Some people wished she had done it sooner, but she had a plan. The time came when she said, ‘Enough is enough! Stop bashing our program, give us credit for all our self-sanctions and be fair.’ When she did that, UM fans thought, ‘Wow, this lady doesn’t play around.’ I think we are all breathing a sigh of relief and benefiting today because of the way she and the whole administration handled everything.”
Her strongest statements came the week of Feb. 18, when the school received its notice of allegations from the NCAA. She said at the time: “We believe strongly in the principles and values of fairness and due process. However, we have been wronged in this investigation, and we believe that this process must come to a swift resolution, which includes no additional punitive measures beyond those already self-imposed.”
She took a calculated risk by criticizing the NCAA publicly, a pre-emptive strike that cast the Hurricanes as victims in the seemingly never-ending investigation.
“The lengthy and already flawed investigation has demonstrated a disappointing pattern of unprofessional and unethical behavior,” Shalala said. “Many of the charges brought forth are based on the word of a man who made a fortune by lying. . . .
“Most of the sensationalized media accounts of Shapiro’s claims are found nowhere in the Notice of Allegations. Despite their efforts over 2 ½ years, the NCAA enforcement staff could not find evidence of prostitution, expensive cars for players, expensive dinners paid for by boosters, player bounty payments, rampant alcohol and drug use or the alleged hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts given to student-athletes, as reported in the media. The fabricated story played well — the facts did not.”
Shalala expressed relief Tuesday that the NCAA cloud had been lifted, and she accepted the punishment. She can live with a reduction of nine football scholarships over three years, three basketball scholarships over three years, and various other recruiting restrictions.
“While we would have preferred just to get the sanctions we already imposed, having read the report and gone through the hearing, I think what they gave us was fair,” she said.
She said that the athletic department had “suffered greatly” through the investigation and the uncertainty.
“The recruiting was directly affected by both the infractions and failure to obey the rules by our own coaches and student-athletes and our admission of those failures,” she said.
“As both [UM basketball coach] Jim Larranaga and [football coach] Al Golden have reported, recruiting was directly affected. Since I’m involved in the recruiting process for all the student-athletes, I can tell you the parents asked about it. So, I think, more than anything else, the athletic program suffered greatly as much by the timeline as anything else. But we were responsible, and it was very clear we broke NCAA rules and we admitted that and were penalized appropriately for it.”
Shalala insisted she did not feel stress, despite the long wait. “I’ve been through much worse than this. I have a bigger job. We just had to get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other and not obsess about when the NCAA was going to report.”
Ed Williamson, a member of UM’s Board of Trustees, said he was impressed with the decisions made by Shalala and Athletic Director Blake James since the scandal became public. He especially liked that she closed in her wagons into a very tight circle.
“There were only three people who actually knew what was happening,” Williamson said. “Donna, Blake, and the lawyer. In the past, there was a lot of conversation, a lot of people involved, a lot of media leaks. She kept the circle real tight, did what she had to do, and that was the right way to do it.”
He also said her background in politics showed. “She rarely gets surprised,” Williamson said. “She was ready for every move the NCAA made.”
Shalala, ever the educator, said the athletic department should use the Shapiro scandal as a learning tool.
“We’ve learned the best compliance system in the world can’t substitute for the good judgment of the personnel that you hire,” she said. “People need to follow through on their instincts. We thought we had a very good compliance system in place. After all, we had the chairman of the NCAA Infractions Committee [Paul Dee] as our athletic director. And we had a very tough football coach and a good strong basketball coach with a good reputation, and a president who watches out for these things, and it still slipped through.
“We will all go back and think about what we missed and when we missed it. More than anything else, I think we’ve learned a lot about changing the culture to where people are comfortable calling us to turn things in . . . It’s about never letting your guard down.
“I apologize to our fans and our community that this happened in the first place, and we’ve just got to be on a path to continuous improvement. The culture has to be one in which anyone who commits an infraction calls us and checks and takes the appropriate punishment. What we can’t do is delay and be afraid we’re going to be fired if we turn ourselves in. It’s always the cover-up that gets you in trouble.