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Just as coverage of the “memorabilia for tattoos” scandal that rocked Ohio State football has finally quieted, a new college football program has emerged as the focus of a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) investigation and media frenzy. In a story broken by Yahoo Sports, Nevin Shapiro, a University of Miami booster incarcerated for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, allegedly provided thousands of benefits to over seventy athletes from 2002 through 2010. The benefits, which included prostitutes, jewelry, cash and entertainment, were in direct violation of NCAA policies. Shapiro also implicated up to seven Miami coaches involved in the scandal.
The possibility of the NCAA imposing the “death penalty” is being discussed on various sports talk shows and other news outlets. For the laymen unfamiliar with NCAA penalties, the death penalty in college sports does not refer to actual capital punishment, but rather to the NCAA prohibiting a school from competing in a particular sport for at least a year. The death penalty is the NCAA’s harshest sanction and has been executed only three times in the history of Division I athletics. The last death penalty was issued to Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) football team after an NCAA investigation determined twenty-one players received cash payments from a booster with the assistance of SMU athletic department staff members. The NCAA cancelled SMU’s 1987 football season and cancelled all of SMU’s 1988 home games. In addition, and perhaps the penalty with the most lasting impact, SMU lost all of its scholarship awards for its athletes. Since the imposition of the death penalty against SMU’s football program, the team has had only two winning seasons and did not win a bowl game until 2009. The death penalty is undoubtedly a sanction that has ramifications beyond the cancelled seasons.
Despite the plethora of “death penalty” predictions being thrown around the media and water coolers, some commentators do not see the death penalty as the ultimate resolution to the controversy surrounding Miami football. Michael Rosenberg, writing for Sports Illustrated, argues that “there is zero chance of the NCAA actually shutting down the Miami football program for a year.” According to Rosenberg, “the NCAA is upset that Miami players took whatever cash they could grab, but the NCAA won’t punish Miami too severely because its member schools want whatever cash they can grab.” Regardless of whether the NCAA chooses to use the death penalty, some Miami players could be facing possible legal troubles outside the realm of collegiate sports.
In addition to violating NCAA rules, some of the benefits allegedly received by Miami players violate Florida criminal law. In particular, Fla. Stat. § 796.07 makes it a crime to engage in prostitution or purchase the services of anyone engaged in prostitution. If convicted, the Miami players accused of engaging in sexual activities with the prostitutes procured by Shapiro would face a maximum of sixty days imprisonment under Fla. Stat. § 775.082, assuming it would be the players’ first violations of Florida prostitution law. Even if Miami players did violate Florida criminal law, prosecution is unlikely. The State’s key witness against the players would be Nevin Shapiro. Shapiro is already imprisoned for cheating and lying to investors and is not likely to be a reliable witness. At this point, the Miami players should be more concerned about losing their scholarships than facing criminal charges.
– Ryan Sawyer
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