Keith Strudler: Miami vs NCAA

It’s been the best of times, and the worst of times for the University of Miami athletics. On the one hand, the Hurricanes have the number two men’s basketball team in the country, which is quite something for a school that usually sees basketball as simply a bridge between bowl season and spring football.

But on the other hand, after much delay and anticipation, Miami just received their long awaited letter of infractions from the NCAA, which accused the school of a lack of institutional control. The allegations stem largely from boosters showering athletes and recruits with everything from cash to prostitutes to apparently even a free abortion. You know, petty cash kind of stuff. And for that, Miami has already endured self-imposed sanctions, including skipping bowl games. It’s an odd place, college sports, where people punish themselves preemptively, kind of like the mafia, which the NCAA kind of is. But they’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and yesterday if felt like a Timberland on an asphalt black top. Miami was hoping for more of moccasin on fresh snow.

But even that’s not so simple. Despite what seemed to be an easier slam dunk than Justin Bieber at a high school dance, the NCAA managed to botch its own overbearing investigation, reinforcing their stereotype as somewhere between Gestapo police and keystone cops. Specifically, one of the organization’s top enforcement officials has been fired for paying a Miami booster’s lawyer to improperly use her subpoena power to help advance the NCAA’s case. For that, Miami is crying foul and demanding the NCAA pull its investigation, which is kind of like telling the terminator to walk away. Think of the NCAA like one of the first remote control cars. They only go one direction.

The irony in all of this is lost on no one, except possibly people who’ve lost their job. The organization that prides itself on the inane minutiae of rules has seemingly broken the most egregious of them. It’s like college sports version of Eliot Spitzer. And Miami athletics, which is often seen as a gateway between prison and the NFL, is crying foul because someone ran roughshod over procedure. It feels like watching an argument between a three year old and a five year old, something I’m intimately familiar with.

In the wake of the NCAA’s errors, more than a few critics have taken the chance to point fingers and call names. Like hypocrite and liar and the kind of language you normally save for politicians. And to a large degree they’re right, especially given the office’s proclivity for swift and often uneven justice. And this would likely be yet another time to rethink NCAA policies and procedures, particularly to the extent that it might involve due process and more reasonable expectations of college athletes.

But this Miami situation and the NCAA’s predictable short fallings shouldn’t be a red herring. It’s real easy to use a rogue cop as an excuse for bad behavior. But it’s not. When University of Miami President Donna Shalala said that Miami has suffered enough and shouldn’t be further victimized, she was ignoring what the organization is supposed to be there for in the first place. The NCAA shouldn’t be there to levy fines when a coach buys a Coke for a kid or drives him to see his sick mother. Which happens, of course. It’s to keep exactly the kind of stuff that happened at Miami, criminal outsiders bribing kids who have limited interest in college, from happening in the first place. That Miami, and all the critics of the NCAA who’ve come out of the woodworks can’t see this is remarkable. In the case of Miami vs. the NCAA, there are no winners here.

And lest we forget, the NCAA is simply made up of schools like. . . Miami. It’s their beast, their rules, and their bad policies and governance. So when Miami grumbles about the oppressive big brother, excuse us all for rolling our eyes. Instead of a complaint box, perhaps a mirror would be more appropriate.

Anyway, Miami doesn’t have much to complain about. With the number two basketball team in all the land, it is nearly the best of times. Except that in some cases, it’s not.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

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