The college football season has not even kicked off, and already it is overwhelmed by scandal. Fifteen members of the University of Miami team, which will play the University of Maryland on Labor Day in a nationally televised season opener, are being investigated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The probe comes on the heels of a report from Yahoo! Sports that over the last eight years, Nevin Shapiro, a former Miami businessman who is serving a 20-year stint in federal prison for fraud, lavished more than 70 University of Miami players with gifts ranging from booking hotel rooms serviced by prostitutes, to jewelry, to free use of a party boat — breaking multiple NCAA bylaws.
These latest charges come after a number of other disgraces have tarnished the sport in recent years. At Ohio State, head football coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign after lying about improprieties in the program. At the University of Southern California, alumnus Reggie Bush, who took hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from a sports agent, gave back his Heisman Trophy, and the team was stripped of its 2004 Bowl Championship. At Auburn, another Heisman winner, Cam Newton, is being investigated by the NCAA after his father sought $180,000 for his son to play at another university.
Financially, big-time college football is prospering, as conferences recently signed billion-dollar broadcast deals. But its ethics and its system of self-regulation are obviously inadequate; the rewards for breaking the rules outweigh the risks.
That has got to change, and quickly. If the charges against Miami are substantiated, the NCAA needs to severely punish the university's football program by banning it from appearing on television for several years. This is a weapon the NCAA has in its arsenal but has been reluctant to use in recent years. It is time to pull it out of the quiver.
The alleged violations at Miami are egregious. The booster stands accused of providing the players with free meals, entertainment and prostitutes, and in one case even paying for an abortion. He is alleged to have offered players bonuses for severe hits that knocked opponents out of the game. Ironically, this man, now a convicted felon for operating a $930 million Ponzi scheme, served as a mentor, a "living scholar," to Miami players, funding their scholarships. There are indications that university officials may have not only known of Mr. Shapiro's activities but encouraged them. He appeared at nightclubs with coaches. He led the football team out of the tunnel onto the field. He presented the university's president, Donna Shalala, with a $50,000 check for the basketball program.
Scandal is not new to the University of Miami football program, a fact Mr. Shapiro seemingly reveled in by calling himself "Little Luke," a reference to Luther Campbell, the entertainer notorious for supplying cash to Miami players in the 1980s and 1990s. After another scandal in 1995, the NCAA said the university had lost control of its football program and took away several scholarships. Clearly, that punishment, a mere slap on the wrist, was not enough.
Something stronger is needed, and the most obvious next step is to take away a team's right to appear on television. This punishment hits a college football program in its breadbasket. Among the myriad factors that distort big-time college football, at the top of the list is the money from television contracts. These revenues flow from the vast expansion of regional sports networks, and they fuel the oversized power of conference commissioners, the gaudy courting of teams by the bowl committees, and the recent tendency of schools like Nebraska and Colorado to change conferences. Cut off a team from the TV money, and you not only punish the offenders, you send a powerful message to other teams of the costly consequences of bad behavior.
A ban on televised games could affect teams that had not violated the rules. If for instance, Miami were banned from television this season — an unlikely outcome — then the Terps would also miss out on the bonanza of appearing on national television. That is unfortunate for teams that played by the rules, but it would have the added effect of making officials in the conference more vigilant about violations, reporting them before they get to the blackout stage. If the television ban doesn't work, the NCAA needs to start suspending the worst offenders from playing altogether.
Stiffer penalties need to be teamed with reforms. The NCAA rule book, which many claim is outdated and needlessly complicated, needs to be rewritten. Perhaps, as author John Feinstein has suggested, major college athletics should be governed by three bodies: one for football, one for men's basketball, and one for nonrevenue sports. A monthly stipend for athletes in revenue-generating sports might be considered. These are long-term remedies that merit examination. But in the short run, before another season produces more scandals, the NCAA has to start hitting corrupt college football programs where it hurts. That's the only way to make them believe that integrity is more important than money.