The culture of college athletics and the system designed to reward boosters with access makes it all too easy for a donor to fly off the handle. Nevin Shapiro was the latest example, leading to a massive scandal at Miami.
Nevin Shapiro is the epitome of a college football booster gone rogue, his story now one of the more mind-boggling tales of corruption in college athletics. With money earned from a Ponzi scheme, Shapiro showered the Miami Hurricanes' athletic department with gifts, parlaying his status as a booster into a relationship with dozens of athletes over a period spanning nearly a decade and involving improper benefits worth millions of dollars.
A donor can be an athletic director's best friend and worst enemy. On one hand, college programs need boosters and the money they bring to the table. On the other, there's a fine line between a legitimate booster and one that's gone overboard. The former can lead to unparalleled success in a program while the latter can reduce an athletic department to rubble at the drop of a hat.
Miami was all too happy to take Shapiro's money, which we later found out was acquired through fraudulent methods, and it eventually led to the largest scandal in college sports since the days of the Pony express. In doing so, Miami opened the door and allowed Shapiro in, setting in motion a chain of events that resulted in a massive investigation and staggering allegations.
In the current facilities arms race in college athletics, the need for boosters continues to increase. One booster -- a Phil Knight or T. Boone Pickens -- can transform a program overnight, giving it a face-lift complete with facilities and amenities designed to entice the best recruits in the country. It's a simple formula: more money farmed from donations means better facilities and a better chance to lure the recruits needed to perform at the highest level. Even with the rising revenue generated from bloated television deals, donors are still an integral part of major college athletics.
College sports affords fans an opportunity the professional ranks can't. Only a minuscule fraction of the public at large will ever own a professional sports team. Money stands as a barrier, as does the old guard in ownership ranks of professional sports. But anyone can, essentially, become a part-owner of a college athletics program, even if it's not in a traditional sense.
Athletic directors have to keep their bases happy to keep the money flowing, giving donors the power to influence major decisions. If the base is restless, an athletic director is forced to make a move, typically in the form of a coaching change, to quell the rising tides of dissension in the ranks. If a coach rubs a large block of donors the wrong way, that coach could be as good as gone. High-dollar boosters are some of the most powerful people in college athletics.
With enough money, a donor can buy access to just about anything in college athletics. The higher the donation, the more access -- from sideline and press box passes to events that allow a booster to rub shoulders with the players and coaches. The access is the tangible reward for a monetary donation; the carrot at the end of the stick used to entice donors as athletic departments make their sales pitches.
When a program is struggling, donor campaigns pitch a return to glory, asking boosters to open their wallets and help right the ship. When a program is on top, donors are asked to be a part of something special, implying that you, Mr. Booster, can own a piece of history. In both cases, athletic departments invite donors to become a part of the program, implying a donation grants some level of ownership.
With the access gained through booster status comes the ability to develop relationships with players -- again, something that doesn't exist in the professional ranks. By the time a player makes it to the NFL, likely earning a seven-figure check for his efforts, the ranks are solidified. Players have inner circles and tend to stay detached from the public, for all intents and purposes. In college, however, the barrier does not yet exist.
Call it star-struck syndrome: a desire to run in the inner circle of high-profile athletes. While college athletes aren't on the same level as those in the professional rank, the level of access is significantly greater, and allows boosters to develop a relationship with players operating on a college budget not unlike a typical student. It's a relationship that can be bought, too, and placing donors with disposable income in contact with athletes blinded by money, cars and women is a recipe for disaster.
For Shapiro, his status as a donor started simply enough before becoming an addiction. He became a booster by sponsoring a scholarship, which creates a built-in, and permissible, relationship between a player and donor. Later, Shapiro said was introduced to Andrew Williams at an awards banquet -- just one of the many events that allows a donor the opportunity to develop a relationship with players -- and handed over tickets to an NBA game. From there, it spiraled out of control as Shapiro opened his wallet and began funding parties filled with booze and women while providing players lavish gifts and cash hand-outs.
His status as a booster, and the access that came with it, served as the gasoline; Shapiro lit the match. Shapiro bought into a culture encouraged by the current system, then took his addiction to extreme levels. He wasn't the first booster to fly off the rails, nor will he be the last.
Boosters aren't going away -- their money funds athletics and academics at institutions around the country. Taking away access as an incentive for donation removes the biggest reward for giving, as well. Even paying players doesn't mitigate the risk of boosters gone wild: why pay for something when it can be had for free? Snuffing out bad boosters -- cutting off the improper benefits at the source -- is an endless cycle; while it's not an exercise that should be dismissed, the process resembles a perpetual game of Whack-a-Mole.
Not all donors are bad. In fact, the majority are not. But the structure of college athletics, the culture the booster program creates, and the access afforded as enticement for donors is a slippery slope. And all the education in the world won't matter if a booster decides to go rogue, fueled by access given as a reward for donations.