Since the SMU football program was bombed back into the stone age for violations so blantant, the NCAA had no choice but to flush everything, wait for the fallout to dissipate, then start from scratch, the NCAA's so-called death penalty has been little more than a threat -- though it's not even a threat anymore, if recent cases are any indication. The death penalty is the NCAA's nuclear option, a last resort nobody wants to use.
To understand whether Miami is possibly standing in the blast zone, one must understand the Hurricanes' place among the elite scandals in NCAA history -- the SMUs, Baylors and point-shaving scandals of old. And even then, looking at precedent may be a futile effort when deciding whether the current Miami case is worthy of the biggest hammer the NCAA has to offer.
Two incidents immediately stand out above the rest, before even delving into the current Miami allegations. First, there was SMU, the most notorious bit of malfeasance in college athletics. Prior to the infamous Pony Express scandal, the Mustangs had established a pattern of violations, placing the program on thin ice. The ice broke when a slush fund emerged and the NCAA came calling again.
What followed was a steady stream of revelations that shook the foundation of amateurism -- players were paid out of a slush fund organized by boosters, and the fund itself was far from secret. The entangled web of the scandal wove its way throughout SMU athletics, leaving the NCAA no choice but to hit the eject button. Knowledge of the improper benefits stretched all the way to the SMU Board of Governors, who not only knew of the slush fund, but approved a plan to phase it out instead of cutting it off right away after the Mustangs were placed on probation in 1985.
Since SMU was handed the death penalty, the NCAA has shied away from deploying its most damning form of discipline again. But there have been opportunities, the most notable of which occurred within the Baylor basketball program in 2003.
On the scale of terrible scandals in NCAA history, Baylor tops them all. Not necessarily for the NCAA violations or because the head coach paid players, but because a murder was involved. And head coach Dave Bliss attempted to use that murder to cover up NCAA violations because the dead can't speak.
Baylor was given a "half" death penalty: the Bears were not allowed to play a non-conference schedule in 2005, along with scholarship and recruiting reductions, and a "show-cause" penalty for Bliss that essentially prevented him from working at the NCAA level for 10 years. Given the opportunity to hand down the death penalty for violations at least on par with those that occurred at SMU, the NCAA flinched.
Miami is more SMU than Baylor, even if allegations of improper benefits are limited to a single booster operating in the athletic department's supposed blind spot. It's the underlying culture of non-compliance and boosters gone wild that could prove to be damning in the current NCAA investigation.
The U was born in the 1980s, and was typified by 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell, who never operated as a booster, nor donated to Miami in any official capacity, but did develop close relationships with many of the Hurricanes' marquee names. The U developed a swagger, with Miami rising to national prominence, all while players ran wild in Coral Gables, living large as the toast of the town. While rumblings of NCAA violations and improper benefits persisted, nothing ever came to pass.
In 1995, though, Miami was caught up in a Pell Grant scandal and received the partial wrath of the NCAA for it. The Hurricanes' penalty was not death, but did leave the football program on life support for years to come. Only in 2001 did Miami rise from its deathbed and return to national prominence, capping a perfect season with a 37-14 win over Nebraska for the national championship.
Now, in 2011, a decade-long scandal has come to light. In his allegations, Shapiro spells out the culture of Miami, and his desire to bring back The U. He wanted to be Uncle Luke, the man who allegedly created a pay-for-play system that served as a pat on the head for players who performed well on Saturdays. Shapiro gave incentives for big plays, placed bounties on opponents' heads and immersed himself in the culture of The U. The aura of The U never died, even after the penalties handed down in the late-1990s.
If there were a time to kill a program and start over, this would be it, assuming the contents of the Yahoo! report are true. There's a pattern and a culture at Miami that spans decades and involves behavior that flips the bird to the NCAA and its rules. Just six years after Miami was hit with significant penalties for the Pell Grant scandal, Nevin Shapiro allegedly moved in, providing a whole host of improper benefits while reviving the culture of The U.
It doesn't matter if Miami officials, including former athletic director Paul Dee, knew about Shapiro's alleged role in the operation. They should have known, in the words of Paul Dee, who emphasized that high-profile athletes require high-profile compliance while dropping the hammer on USC. And given the history of The U, keeping track of the interactions between boosters and players, especially actions as flagrant as Shapiro alleges, should have been a top-priority.
But while the death penalty should be on the table given the circumstances and precedent, the NCAA has shown it doesn't care about the past, with many, perhaps rightfully, surmising that college athletics' governing body is "making it up as it goes along." Penalties are handed down with no real regard for precedent and with little in the way of rhyme or reason. This isn't a court of law, a fact that's abundantly clear at all levels of the process, from investigation to penalty.
And therein lies the problem with the NCAA. With no clear guidelines and punishments, and faced with a situation as serious as the one Miami presents, college athletics' governing body is flying blind, and doing so without the support of the public at-large.
No matter what happens to Miami, it will be a purely symbolic move. A death penalty makes the Hurricanes a sacrificial lamb, serving as a reminder that the nuclear option is still on the table. It won't deter enthusiastic boosters from going overboard, nor will it suddenly cause programs around the country to clean up their act.
But anything less than a death penalty is tacit approval of the blurred lines of amateurism.
And though the NCAA can kill a small program -- the Morehouse College men's soccer program and MacMurray College men's tennis program both ceased to exist in recent years -- it fears demolishing a major college team.
Because of the seeds sown when SMU was handed the death penalty, the NCAA has placed itself in a no-win situation. No matter what it does to Miami, the NCAA is facing the very real possibility of losing control -- moreso than it has already.