When the moral compass of college sports is broken, morality gets lost and veers off the straight and narrow road to follow an enticing shortcut.
Cheating becomes a two-cent word.
Punishment becomes anticlimactic.
That’s why some University of Miami fans are celebrating the sanctions against their school’s teams as victory. They see UM as victim and the NCAA as wrongdoer — even when UM’s own president, Donna Shalala, admitted shame and consternation over booster Nevin Shapiro’s unchecked decade-long, free-for-all entertaining athletes, coaches and recruits inside his mansion, aboard his yacht and at Miami Beach restaurants and nightclubs.
How did things turn upside down? And what does the resolution of UM’s case say about the weakening grip of the NCAA over the concept of right and wrong in the increasingly professionalized culture of college sports?
After two and a half years of investigation, trial and deliberation, UM learned the verdict Tuesday and was penalized with the loss of nine football and three basketball scholarships over the course of three years’ probation. The light sentence was not unexpected, given that UM had self-imposed two postseason bans, yet it was baffling to many schools who suffered worse for more isolated types of infractions and were not found guilty of “lack of institutional control,” as UM was for allowing an atmosphere of indifference toward rules.
The NCAA, which botched the UM investigation and discarded 20 percent of the evidence — primarily on Shapiro’s role as sports agent — came out looking fair and just in the eyes of Miami supporters but inscrutable to most observers around the nation.
UM’s punishment, coming on the heels of cases at North Carolina, South Carolina and Central Florida, among others, was another example of wild inconsistency from the NCAA, which destroyed Penn State’s football program over the criminal charges and coverup in the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case, slammed Ohio State in the tattoo parlor case, subtracted 30 scholarships from USC in the Reggie Bush case and then pinched Johnny Manziel with a 30-minute benching for autographing thousands of items for memorabilia sellers.
When the NCAA’s purpose as lawmaker, policeman and judge is ridiculed, rules lose their weight, too. Oklahoma State should be scandalized by Sports Illustrated’s findings and worried about a pending NCAA investigation. Instead, more shrugs than embarrassment.
The flawed Miami case and its outcome took another bite out of the NCAA’s credibility. The NCAA is only as strong as its membership, and its members — who call themselves institutions of higher learning — use it as a punching bag, jabbing at contradictory rules and convoluted adjudication. Their aim tilts toward beating the inept, evil NCAA rather than cleaning up their dirty athletic departments. The NCAA stands in the way of its own mission.
The NCAA was built on the ideal of amateurism, but that is crumbling. The college sports industry has been secretly semi-professional forever and is shifting toward a professional model. Coaches’ outlandish salaries, the bouncing billions of March Madness, a bowl bonanza morphing to an even more lucrative playoff system and ballooning TV contracts all make the NCAA more archaic.