Scream. It’ll make you feel better. Complain. It’ll release the poisons. Throw a justified temper tantrum in public, like the University of Miami’s president did last week, and feel stronger as consensus gathers behind you with uncommon support. Purging outrage can feel good when it doesn’t feel bad. But then slink back to your corner, defeated, and realize that your path is littered with beaten screamers and complainers and temper-tantrum throwers who expired exhausted without ever making so much as a dent. And then wait for the fear to return.
The worst part? The helplessness. UM President Donna Shalala is a powerful person unaccustomed to feeling powerless. So her angry screed toward the NCAA about its investigation last week echoed from coast to coast, but it wasn’t so much an uprising as it was one tiny, furious woman yelling into a canyon. An angry letter, that’s all this was, though personal because this particular president felt wronged after decades and decades of university presidents enabling, empowering and emboldening the NCAA’s ridiculous rights.
So many powerful people have fed this bloated, ugly beast for so long, and now one of them was finally complaining about being bitten. But she wouldn’t have been this kind of passionate if she worked at the University of Florida instead. And that’s one of the frustrations here: Unfairness must be felt by the motivated many before fairness can be felt by the first few.
Shalala’s statement got huge backing locally because it gave the powerless a voice, and made all those weary UM fans feel heard, but this was just a street crowd gathering and yelling, “Fight! Fight!” Celebrating that she hit the old tank with a pebble from her slingshot ignores all the bodies strewn behind her and all the awful yet up ahead.
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You can’t get consensus on much of anything in sports, arguments starting over the silliest of hair-splitting, but the consensus for decades has been that the NCAA is an absurd, unjust artifact that belches out unfairness. And yet here it still stands, undefeated. Not only that, you can make the argument it has never been more powerful given the way it trampled due process in gutting Penn State — and to applause, no less. We like the behavior of the all-powerful when we agree with it. We don’t like it so much when it is our school on the wrong end.
Inside or outside of sports, you will have a hard time finding anything railed against as long as the NCAA with so little impact. Dictatorships come to mind. But never mind overthrow; nobody can get the NCAA to even change. Why? Money, of course. The NFL and NBA have free minor-league systems, and rich boosters fund big athletic departments, so we keep trafficking on the inner cities and rationalize these cartels by filing it neatly under “education” — this as freshman Heisman winner Johnny Manziel makes an estimated $37 million for his university and now (cough, cough, wink, wink) takes his classes online. If the labor is free, and the rich and powerful keep getting paid, what incentive is there to fix anything about shamateurism? You are insulated from noise outside when you work inside a bank vault.
Still, Miami is in the middle of what feels like a small movement. There is some solace in that. An assistant USC football coach is suing the NCAA for corruption in its investigative arm. Ed O’Bannon is suing on behalf of all student-athlete-indentured-servants for using his likeness in a video game for profit. The governor of Pennsylvania is suing for what happened at Penn State, and you can rest assured Shalala will be suing if her school is hit with even more penalty than it self-imposed. The more lawsuits, the better. It is what finally brought change to an NFL that had been discrediting doctors linking the game to concussions. And Miami is armed with something unusual — the omnipotent NCAA admitting actual wrong-doing by firing employees over conduct in the UM investigation.
Problem is, as we’ve seen over the past few years of uncertainty around the program during this eternal investigation, lawsuits take time that recruits don’t have. Better for the best athletes to pick the schools without the NCAA clouds. So Miami, while fighting punishment, keeps getting punished … while awaiting yet more punishment. Quitting is easier, allowing you to have closure and move on, which is why the NCAA tends to win these fights. Think of it this way: Who do you think is more likely to quit a fight between two people if only one of them is actually doing the suffering?
Good luck with fairness here. You rarely find that when the people entrusted with dispensing it have to justify years of time and expense, have to justify their very existence. If you are going to just let UM decide its own penalties, why have an enforcement staff spending years and dollars on this case? You don’t need to pay the police if the criminals are going to police and jail themselves. Miami is not an innocent here, and the program’s history makes it a bad applicant for martyrdom as Ponzi weasel Nevin Shapiro works from jail to bring it down, but it is hard to find the truth in the extremes when the media sensationalizes the crimes and the NCAA’s prideful investigative arm has more motive to punish than it does to walk away in cut-your-losses shame.
I asked Shalala to talk this week. She declined. I thought someone this powerful, angry and wronged might want to say something more beyond that statement, but the NCAA is still off in the distance and fear has a way of silencing even the outraged and strong.
Once upon a time, UM had reason to worry about the vindictive, lying, immoral, corrupt con artist who was in jail.
But now it must concern itself with the one roaming free.