Miami Hurricanes, Donna Shalala made the right long-term move with bowl ban

The University of Miami football team’s season ends Saturday. UM has banned itself from joining the nonelite company of 50 teams that will play in mostly meaningless bowl games.

Seems like a reasonable price to pay. Skip the Shoedini Bowl or Snuggie Bowl, destinations that are beneath the heights the program has reached in the past and are aspiring to reach in the future.

The decision by UM president Donna Shalala to forgo a second consecutive bowl was a no-brainer.

Don’t listen to protests by fans so blinded by their allegiance that they cannot see beyond 2012. UM is under investigation by the NCAA, bracing for major penalties. The Hurricanes aren’t very good right now but can be very good down the road. So they take their medicine and aim for a bowl befitting their improved stature.

Shalala not only did the smart thing, but also she did the right thing. And the right thing still counts in college sports.

“Everything an institution does to show it is cooperating and taking the investigation seriously will work in its favor,” said Jo Potuto, a University of Nebraska law professor who was chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions and currently serves as a substitute. “If the school is merely putting up window dressing, the committee will see right through it because they’ve seen it before.

“Ultimately, it is the university’s responsibility to do what is right.”

Playing what if

Otherwise, what is the point of college sports, or any sport? Shouldn’t it be a contest between the best athletes rather than the best cheaters?

Perhaps UM will defeat Duke and would advance to the ACC title game against Florida State. Perhaps UM would upset FSU and advance to the Orange Bowl.

Then again, what if UM lost to Duke, finished 6-6 and went to a lower-tier bowl that would only highlight its mediocrity? What if UM got crushed by FSU for the second time this season, while lots of recruits were watching, and lost in a bowl game, too?

Shalala doesn’t lead by consulting a crystal ball. She makes hard choices weighing the pros and cons of what is best for the university.

As Potuto said, “Schools under investigation don’t operate in a vacuum.” Shalala listens to lawyers who are experts on the NCAA process, which is not meant to mirror the process in a court of law. There is no plea bargaining. But schools anticipating postseason bans, TV bans and scholarship reductions can soften the blow and, in UM’s case, prevent the exodus of Golden’s players when they are upperclassmen. Shalala doesn’t want to make the same short-sighted mistake made by Ohio State, undefeated and in position to win a national title, but ineligible for any bowl because a ban wasn’t imposed earlier.

Don’t blame the NCAA for UM’s predicament or Monday’s depressing but expected announcement.

As coach Al Golden said: “We want to get it fixed.” That means suffering the consequences for unethical behavior. That means strengthening compliance so a weasel booster such as Nevin Shapiro isn’t running wild and assistant coaches aren’t giving and athletes aren’t receiving improper benefits.

UM is applying 50 lashes in the hope that the NCAA will apply only 50 more. This exercise in self-flagellation is a bit of a gambit.

But it hurts. Therefore, it works.

No, it’s not fair to the 17 seniors who have devoted countless hours to the team and milestone of a first ACC championship berth. It’s not fair UM won’t get 20 extra practice days. It’s not fair to deny the chance to play the game, no matter the odds.

But, as Golden said, “That’s the system.” The NCAA can only punish — and in turn, deter — schools that have agreed to be rule-abiding members. The NCAA cannot punish Shapiro (the Ponzi schemer is in prison) or ex-Canes who foolishly accepted gifts from a guy who exhibited traits of a groupie shyster. The NCAA can only try to keep the playing field even by penalizing cheaters who have gained a competitive advantage.

“The infractions committee has to be fair to schools that are culpable and schools that have been compliant,” Potuto said. “What gets my goat is the perception that the NCAA is one big evil monolith. People serving on the committee would not attend meetings and study thick case binders in our spare time if we did not believe that athletics is important, energizing and unifying.”

Is it an imperfect system? Enormously so. But until somebody invents something better, the NCAA is the only barrier separating big-time football and basketball from complete anarchy. You could argue that for all its flaws, the NCAA has been more effective at regulating rogues on campus than the SEC has been on Wall Street.

College sports goes through cycles of excess and reform, toeing and sometimes crossing the line into professionalism. It’s not getting any cleaner with conferences like the Big Ten expanding to 14-16 teams and schools like Maryland and Rutgers — who barely turn a profit on athletics or run deficits despite millions in funding — trolling for more money. Currently, there is a shared feeling among presidents that NCAA penalties have not been severe enough to root out persistent problems.

Forefathers’ sins

“We found some coaches did cost-benefit analysis: Is it worth it to cheat? Can we get away with it? How much do the sanctions matter? Can I just get hired by another school?” Potuto said. “I think penalties need to be and will be ramped up, but let’s concentrate on serious stuff and less on stuff that does not confer a competitive advantage.”

The NCAA didn’t quickly wrap up its UM investigation for a reason. UM is anticipating more than bowl bans as it enters a turbulent time: Two athletic directors have left in the past two years; Golden and basketball coach Jim Larranaga are paying for sins they didn’t commit; attendance is lagging at Sun Life Stadium and BankUnited Center; donors are down; nonrevenue sports deserve more support.

Allegations hang over a campus eager to move forward.

“I can see the end, what we’re going to become,” Golden said.

He and Shalala must keep their eyes on that vision.

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