You would not want to underestimate Donna Shalala on a tennis court. Or in a poker game. Or in a boxing ring.
The NCAA has a nasty cut over its eye, and Shalala is pummeling it, making it bleed.
The University of Miami president is doing something unprecedented: She is fighting back.
Most of Shalala’s peers at universities in the United States would not dare challenge the NCAA in scathing public statements with a verdict pending.
But Shalala did so, right in the middle of a basketball game. After two years of bowing and cooperating and staying mum during the NCAA’s investigation of booster Nevin Shapiro’s slimy influence on UM football and basketball, Shalala has removed the kid gloves and put on the heavy ones.
During halftime of UM’s 54-50 win over Virginia on Tuesday, Shalala left her seat in the stands and went outside the arena to compose her rebuttal to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations delivered earlier in the day.
She said the NCAA “violated its own policy,” called reliance on corroboration from convicted Ponzi-schemer Shapiro “ludicrous” and said UM has “suffered enough.”
Her strategy could backfire when the Committee on Infractions decides how to penalize UM. She knows that. But she’s ready to take the risk.
She should also be ready to reveal the charges against UM. After demanding and lauding the principle of transparency, she should practice it. Shalala’s indignation is valid — and strategic. But her school, under her watch, has been accused of “lack of institutional control,” the Doomsday Switch of NCAA accusations. If that is unfair or unsubstantiated, then show why.
The NCAA has been criticized as the “pot calling the kettle black” by botching its investigation of unethical behavior at UM with unethical behavior by its enforcement staff. UM can and should avoid similar criticism that it is being hypocritical in its reaction.
The NCAA is accustomed to being a punching bag. It’s easy to take shots at the organization that is perceived as the spoilsport of college sports. The NCAA is as unloved as the Internal Revenue Service. The NCAA is “always out to get us” say fans of UM or USC or Ohio State or [Fill in Blank], who seem to forget that the NCAA would not have any power unless its member institutions agreed to abide by their own rules. Said fans never want accusations against “their” teams investigated by the incompetent, petty NCAA but they do want the biased, corrupt NCAA to go after those cheating scoundrels at Florida or Auburn or Connecticut or [Fill in Blank].
Ironies abound in a system that has been flawed for decades. The outrage gets louder as the money gets bigger. College sports is a multi-billion-dollar industry that has become tougher to regulate. The Securities and Exchange Commission no longer has the resources to police Wall Street, either.
Shalala sees an opening. NCAA president Mark Emmert ordered an investigation of the investigation, and 20 percent of the evidence was discarded.
She would like to settle the whole thing, get credit for UM’s self-imposed postseason bans, player suspensions and reduced recruiting visits and call it a wash.
But Emmert isn’t backing down. He knows UM does not get to dictate its own punishment. Penn State didn’t. What if we could self-impose our own penalty after running a stop sign?
Does UM deserve harsher penalties? Was banning itself from what would have been a marginal bowl game and an ACC title game it might have lost enough? Was Al Golden’s small but rapidly growing signing class enough? Considering the recruiting violations that transpired under Frank Haith — minor as they appear to be — can the basketball program expect more punishment?
Keep in mind that USC got docked 30 scholarships for the actions of one athlete, Reggie Bush, and one rogue agent, and bitter Trojan fans maintain former UM athletic director and infractions committee chair Paul Dee was “out to get” USC. Ohio State got whacked because athletes received free tattoos (and exacerbated that minor transgression by lying about it along with coach Jim Tressel).
Shapiro was greasing palms for a decade. The guy was a con man, sure, who duped gullible, greedy people out of lots of their money. But he was also a walking, talking, blinking red-arrow sign. Randy Shannon told players to stay away from him. Compliance officer David Reed warned his bosses. Haith allegedly paid Shapiro not to rat on recruiting entertainments by his staff.
Despite the obvious smell oozing from Shapiro, UM named a players’ lounge after him. Shalala accepted a giant check from him at a bowling party, he was on team planes and game sidelines.
An NCAA conspiracy against UM? No, just the same lack of oversight in Indianapolis as there was in Coral Gables.
In hindsight, it would have been better to stand up to Shapiro then than to the NCAA now. But Shalala is striking back. She is being pragmatic. Another irony is that so many UM football fans were cruelly dismissive of Shalala for years, saying she was antifootball, disregarding that Shalala is a knowledgeable and devoted follower of college sports and an excellent athlete herself. As a kid in Cleveland, she played softball on a team coached by George Steinbrenner. She has a mean backhand today, at age 72.
She was the first woman to lead a Big Ten university (Wisconsin). She served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet for eight years. She was a pioneering Peace Corps volunteer in Iran. Her hero is Amelia Earhart.
Shalala does not have to tell what’s inside the Notice of Allegations because UM is a private institution. Public schools don’t have that privilege. But if she wants the public to take her word for it, she should not use her NCAA jabs as a diversionary tactic to hide damaging information.
Shalala is the worthy foe the NCAA needs as it attempts reforms, again. She’s going to fight, but she ought to fight fair.