As scandal builds, UM needs trustees' adult supervision
By Michael Lewis
Community leaders shouldn't fear outside sanctions that University of Miami athletics could suffer for a long list of alleged misdeeds that's sweeping the nation.
Instead, they should worry that enough won't be done from the inside about claims by a convicted Ponzi schemer that he corrupted 72 athletes who all should have known they were doing wrong — as should school officials, had they wanted to.
This national public relations disaster for UM comes as the school has been striving to build an academic reputation in cutting-edge arenas, not regain the limelight as a sports trouble spot.
The outside threat is that the National Collegiate Athletic Association could hit UM with its so-called death penalty, shutting down sports for a year or more. With hundreds of athletes on the UM playroll, that could cost big money while sinking the school's reputation nationally.
If you listen to UM officials, the nation gloats while the U twists in the wind.
"...it pains me tremendously to see such sensational stories and headlines," former athletic director Paul Dee is quoted in the Miami Herald. "UM is getting creamed again, and everyone around the country loves it."
But the reason UM is getting creamed again and others gloat is that its football program is in scandal again, as it has been over and over. A fine academic center has developed as its national face not medical giants or scientific powerhouses but a football bad boy on steroids.
The athletic program over the years has been sanctioned three times. That's ample reason for bad repute, which is why community leaders must worry not about national sanctions but about making sure the university takes vital steps internally — ahead of NCAA action — to totally change course.
Those steps once could have come from edicts by President Donna Shalala. They did not.
Now, it's time for UM trustees to act — not to condemn, but to change.
A letter to this newspaper from Beacon Council CEO Frank Nero defends the future status of President Shalala, whose contract was recently renewed, by pointing out her contributions to higher academic standards and high-profile research.
Trustees should consider that work, but they must also question who was watching the store in athletics when everyone from Ms. Shalala, a huge sports booster, to the janitor was well aware of lurking dangers and frequent past explosions.
Where was the vital adult supervision? Or didn't administrators want to know what was going on in a high-glory area?
Trustees, not the president, must act. That action must be decisive, with zero tolerance for misdeeds.
No matter how much they love athletics, no matter how important they think it is to the university, trustees should ponder their own death penalty before the NCAA acts. And they should weigh carefully whether UM should kill football as a big-time sport not just for a year but in perpetuity.
Academic bastion the University of Chicago was a Big Ten football powerhouse that in 1939 dropped the sport, bringing it back later in collegiate minor leagues. Chicago's image didn't suffer by downgrading athletics — the total focus on academics, in fact, polished it.
Beyond proving that UM is dead serious about the rules of any game — including the game of life — a football cutback could rebalance priorities in a difficult economic environment.
Relevant facts: UM is one of 103 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Average spending on each athlete at those schools rose from $61,218 in 2005 to $84,446 in 2008, according to a study for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
In UM's athletic conference, average spending per athlete in 2008 was $105,805 but academic spending was just $15,911 per student.
That same study reported that of the 103 universities, just seven managed to break even on sports, so 96 drained university funds. Yet, according to the study, athletic spending at those 103 schools keeps growing at double to triple the rate for academics.
The report projects that the top ten schools in sports spending will average $417,000 per athlete in 2020, not including the cost of teaching them.
In 2009, according to a Cambridge University Press book on big-time university sports published this year, UM was 41st in the US in sports spending. Does a middling-size private university belong in the spending league of those big public football powerhouses?
Moreover, should a university with the academic aspirations of UM be recruiting to its teams on scholarship high school students without the credentials to otherwise gain entry and unlikely to ever graduate?
"Miami is not some college-credit supermarket that needs big-time football to justify its existence," a Detroit columnist wrote five years ago after a nationally publicized on-field UM football brawl with Florida International University. After noting the high UM admission standards for non-athletes, he continued, "The students and faculty at Miami deserve better."
The UM board should not wait for the scandal to blow over. A national probe will be slow; pain will linger. Trustees must look at both top university leadership and the future of sports in an oft-tarnished program.
For certain, President Shalala shouldn't be left echoing Rupert Murdoch as he said in the newspaper phone-hacking scandal that nobody told him or his son of illegal actions that were well known in his company. If he really didn't know, why not? And if she really didn't know, why not?
University image repair starts at the top, and the board is the top.
At the time FIU and UM got into their slugfest, also on President Shalala's watch, most big news outlets nationally featured the scandal, one with less long-term impact than the present UM catastrophe.
A San Diego sports column viewed it this way: "Florida International University? Never heard of it. The University of Miami? Definitely heard of its TV show — "CSI: UMiami'."
That's not a reputation this university should live with. It's not one this community can endure.
It's past time for adult supervision.
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