Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: NCAA rules lose weight once again

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.

The sheer volume of money flowing to the NCAA and its member schools and conferences buttresses the argument that college athletes are exploited pawns who deserve a cut.

“The NCAA is losing power already to conference commissioners,” said Murray Sperber, college professor and author of the seminal books College Sports Inc. and Beer and Circus. “If players get paid, out goes 90 percent of the NCAA rulebook.”

Not only is the NCAA under threat by talk of super conferences breaking free of its command, but by Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit for compensation and growing public opinion in favor of pay for athletes.

“The older generation would like to keep the romantic idea of a small-town kid like Damon Bailey becoming a college hero at Indiana — which is an illusion anyway,” said Sperber, who formerly taught at Indiana and is now at California-Berkeley. “The younger generation says, ‘Well, Division I athletes are practically pros now so why not grant them that status?’ ”

The belief that athletes are used while being denied their piece of the profit makes it easier to look the other way when a booster such as Shapiro gives gifts or assistant football coach Clint Hurtt drives recruits to Shapiro’s house so they can use his jet skis and go clubbing on his tab. When Chris Webber complained that he couldn’t afford a hamburger, his free meals (and thousands in money) from a booster could be seen as rightful rewards.

As the NCAA loses its influence, so does the compunction to be clean: If our rivals are skirting the impossibly complicated, outdated rules, so must we to keep up with them.

Thus there are fans like the minority at UM, upset more at the NCAA than at the conduct of athletes and coaches.

“Of all the schools who are not victims, Miami is at the front of the line not only because they knew the rules but because they’ve been through this drill several times before,” said Sperber, who wasn’t surprised about reaction to the NCAA’s latest report. “College sports is one of the most dysfunctional and illogical institutions in America. It makes no sense.”

Damage to UM’s teams by the NCAA taint will soon come to an end, and it starts Saturday when No.7 UM plays Wake Forest, finally free from the cloud. But damage to UM’s reputation should not be glossed over, Sperber said. College sports can bring both types of attention.

“When Bob Knight was winning with upstanding programs, the university got lots of positive publicity, but when he went crazy and choked players, IU bled crimson,” Sperber said. “Miami’s NCAA cases have hurt. It went from Suntan U. to Dr. Dre U. to this present scandal. Miami is a wonderful, respected academic institution, but your average American didn’t hear that when the football team got in trouble again.

“The difference is that a lot of people in Miami were not morally outraged by kids on yachts and in strip clubs.”

The question is, whether it’s Miami or Stillwater, if the NCAA is a laughingstock, do its rules really count?

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