For the NCAA, sentencing a major football program to the "Death Penalty" is the equivalent of dropping the atomic bomb. It's only been deployed once, in the most extreme of circumstances, and to such devastating effect that it's almost inconceivable that the button could ever be pushed again ? at least in part because no program, or anyone who cares enough about a program to cheat on its behalf, would be willing to take the risk again.
It's that context that makes the scope of Yahoo! Sports' sprawling, meticulously documented account of NCAA violations at the University of Miami over the last decade so difficult to summarize. Since the NCAA nuked SMU's program in 1987, there's really no comparison to the story outlined Tuesday by reporters Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel. We're not talking about one player getting paid by an agent, or a father soliciting money on behalf of his son, or half a dozen players exchanging memorabilia for tattoos, or even the head coach lying about what he knew about half a dozen players exchanging memorabilia for tattoos. We're not parsing the merits of a scouting report here.
There is no equivalent in the last quarter-century of the number of players, the amount of money, the extent of the opulence or the level of entrenched access of the booster in question, Nevin Shapiro, who now ranks among the most infamous figures in the history of the sport.
Through 100 jailhouse interviews with Shapiro himself, nearly 100 more interviews with other sources, more than 25,000 pages of financial, business and cell phone records, and more than 1,000 photographs over the last 11 months, Robinson and Wetzel surmised that Shapiro's web had ensnared...
? 25 former NFL draft picks, including 13 first-rounders. Among the most high-profile names: Devin Hester, Vince Wilfork, D.J. Williams, Jonathan Vilma, Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, Kellen Winslow Jr. and the late Sean Taylor.
? 7 players who now play for other schools, including Florida wide receiver Andre Debose and Kansas State running back Bryce Brown, a one-time Miami commit who was ranked as the No. 1 incoming prospect in the country in 2009.
? 7 former assistant coaches with alleged "knowledge or direct participation" in violating NCAA rules.
? 2 first-round picks, Jon Beason and Vince Wilfork, who signed to an agency Shapiro allegedly co-owned, Axcess Sports & Entertainment.
The dollar total involved may be impossible to surmise. Shapiro's attorney told the Miami Herald earlier this week she didn't have a figure attached to the illegal benefits he says he provided, but it clearly exceeded her estimate of "well over thousands of dollars": For eight years, Shapiro lavished players with cash, hotel rooms, invitation-only parties with scores of prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and his yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and on at least one occasion, an abortion. By his own estimate, he spent millions ? all of it stolen, part of the $930 million he swindled from investors in a Ponzi scheme that put him behind bars for 20 years.
He spent thousands in bona fide booster fashion, too, and reaped the usual benefits: A suite at home games, access to the press box and sideline, occasional face time with coaches and university officials, an occasional seat on the team plane, a player lounge named in his honor. But he was not the rogue booster discreetly slipping cash into players' hands in a back room somewhere outside Fort Lauderdale. He was the guy who tried to install a stripper pole in his suite in LandShark Stadium. He was the guy who tried to fight the compliance director in the Orange Bowl press box. He was a guy who openly aspired to be the next "Uncle Luke":
"Here's the thing: Luther Campbell was the first uncle who took care of players before I got going," Shapiro said, referring to the entertainer notorious for supplying cash to Miami players in the 1980s and 1990s. "His role was diminished by the NCAA and the school, and someone needed to pick up that mantle. That someone was me. He was 'Uncle Luke,' and I became 'Little Luke.'
"I became a booster in late 2001, and by early 2002, I was giving kids gifts. From the start, I wasn't really challenged. And once I got going, it just got bigger and bigger. I just did what I wanted and didn't pay much mind toward the potential repercussions."
He was a guy who considered himself the owner of a de facto pro franchise, and he was basically right.
From an NCAA compliance perspective, there is nothing, nothing, that this story lacks. A prominent booster of a major program with a long rap sheet of NCAA violations�spent huge sums of ill-gotten money providing dozens of players with cash, gifts and sex for nearly a decade, under two different head coaches. The university president, athletic director and coaches knew him by name and enthusiastically accepted his money; for a while, they literally put his name on a piece of the program. And he implicates multiple assistant coaches. And he owned a sports agency that signed high-profile Miami players on their way to the draft. And then he turned out to be an even more prominent federal criminal, on a scale that prompted the local press to compare him to Caligula. (And this is the local press in Miami we're talking about, which knows from squalid excess.) And if he hadn't been thrown in prison for perpetuating one of the most massive frauds in U.S. history, he never would have been caught ? by the NCAA, by Yahoo! Sports, and certainly not by Miami.
If it wasn't true, you couldn't make it up. It is such a nightmare, such a perfect storm of arrogance, negligence and corruption, that it's almost a parody of the genre. It's a feature film that makes you roll your eyes and wonder how they ever expected an audience to swallow that it was "inspired by true events."
It's also a test of the NCAA's mettle: Just how far is it willing to go to continue to enforce the facade of "amateurism"? In the most extreme, unabashed affront to its most fundamental premise ? hell, to its very existence ? in 25 years, where does it draw the line?
I don't know the answer, and I doubt anyone will for a long time. The NCAA process is well underway, and its response is going to be the usual long, protracted exercise in bureaucratic tooth-pulling, spanning many months and many bureaucratic steps, and probably an appeal or two in the name of giving Miami its due process. At no point in that span will I write that Miami is going to get the death penalty, or that it should get the death penalty. Frankly, I don't have an opinion.
But if the death penalty is in the bylaws, it must be on the table here. Practically speaking, if this isn't a death penalty case, then the death penalty no longer exists.