State Colleges

Greg Cote: UM is right, but NCAA has the might

What is it they say about no animal being more dangerous than one wounded or backed into a corner? Apparently the same is true of a staggered NCAA, which suffers from the national embarrassment of its own corruption and buffoonery but nevertheless has some desperate fight left in it.

This cannot be good news for the University of Miami.

UM has done all it can to publicly shame the NCAA into submission — armed with ample ammunition — and yet the beleaguered governing body lurches and limps obstinately on, full of spectacularly unjustified pride. Give the NCAA and its hypocrite-president Mark Emmert this much: This body can take a punch.

Hurricanes sports run on a façade of life-goes-on-normalcy these days. Men’s basketball was cheered into the Sweet 16. Baseball nears its playoffs. Spring football ended Saturday with an optimistic show by quarterback Stephen Morris and running back Duke Johnson.

But all the while something sinister boils under the serene surface, threatening a sinkhole.

It is the NCAA. Poked, prodded and not happy about it.

Of course none of this seems pressing at the moment as we try yet again to make sense of what’s senseless: this time the Boston Marathon bombings.

UM’s own little reality hasn’t gone away, though. We are reminded in the new, 32-page report from NCAA Vice President of Enforcement Jonathan F. Duncan — a response to Miami’s 45-page motion that beseeched college sports’ judge and jury to end its laborious investigation of Miami with no further punishment.

Punch. Counterpunch. Miami has right in its corner, I think, the better argument here, but that’s moot, because the NCAA has the heavier gloves in this fight, the last swings. And, of course, the people scoring this fight are neither neutral observers nor jurors under oath. They are members of the NCAA enforcement committee, whose boss just penned the defensive, derriere-covering report blasting UM.

If these dueling reports are a matter of he-said/she-said, UM might have the right argument, but the NCAA has the megaphone, and the last word.

We should have seen this coming.

UM and its president, Donna Shalala, have gambled in a big way by aggressively, harshly and publicly calling to task the NCAA for its various improper conduct in the long-stewing case of renegade booster Nevin Shapiro.

It is one thing for an independent review to have cited wrongdoing by the NCAA.

It is one thing for Emmert himself to have admitted to “enormous foul-ups” in the case.

It is one thing for the media (like myself) to have blasted the NCAA and called for an end to the case.

Risky strategy

But it is quite another thing for UM itself and its high-profile president to have gone on the attack with a scathing report that in great detail outlined “unprofessional and unethical” behavior by the NCAA and its investigators.

That risky, unprecedented strategy left the NCAA little choice but to acquiesce or fight back. It pushed the wounded animal into a corner.

“We anticipated it,” a member of UM’s Board of Trustees whom I have know since the 1980s told me Monday of the NCAA’s defiant response. “There was not unanimity in the decision to file our motion [to dismiss], particularly in the language we did, because all it could do is make the other side get its back up.”

There is no provision in NCAA bylaws to dismiss a case prior to the enforcement committee meeting, which in this matter is set for mid-June, so in retrospect Miami’s attack strategy in calling for an immediate end to the case might be doubly questionable.

Don’t get me wrong. UM vigorously defending its interests and calling for a resolution without further penalties seemed justified, for a combination of three major reasons:

The NCAA investigation being tainted by its own well-documented wrongdoing; the main accuser against Miami being a convicted Ponzi-schemer, some of whose allegations have been uncorroborated; and UM’s own self-imposed, already-served penalties, including two football bowl games and the ACC championship game.

‘grasping at straws’

Miami’s and Shalala’s actions still seem understandable to me, because of all of those things.

The question, though, is whether UM might have played it smarter with behind-the-scenes lobbying rather than a scathing public demand.

It was the latter that brought Sunday’s pointed NCAA response accusing Miami of “grasping at straws” with “merit-less claims” and “unsupported attacks.”

Miami now finds itself in an uncomfortable position partly of its own doing: Hoping for mercy — or at least fairness — from the same NCAA it has publicly denounced and angered.

Fairness alone in this case was a lot to ask under the best of circumstances, given all that has turned this investigation into a blooper reel.

All UM can hope now is that the NCAA in its June ruling acknowledges the extraordinary circumstances of this case, weighs fully its own wrongdoing, and ends this surreal saga so that the embarrassed on both sides can start to leave this mess behind.