CORAL GABLES, Fla. - With investigators five months into checking allegations that a Ponzi scheme artist spent freely on University of Miami athletes, the NCAA president said Wednesday that if the claims are confirmed they show the need for "fundamental change" in college sports.
Former Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro, now serving 20 years in federal prison, claims he provided players with cash, prostitutes, cars and other gifts from 2002 to 2010. Shapiro told Yahoo Sports that 72 football players and other athletes at Miami received improper benefits from him in the past decade.
"If the assertions are true, the alleged conduct at the University of Miami is an illustration of the need for serious and fundamental change in many critical aspects of college sports," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement.
The Hurricanes' entire football team practised Wednesday, even though Shapiro's claims involve several current players. Coach Al Golden said it was too soon to take disciplinary action. His team opens the season Sept. 5 against Maryland.
Last week, Emmert led a group of university presidents in drafting an outline for change in college sports. The group included Miami president Donna Shalala.
"The serious threats to the integrity of college sports are one of the key reasons why I called together more than 50 presidents and chancellors last week to drive substantive changes to Division I intercollegiate athletics," Emmert said in his statement.
In the past 18 months, the football teams at Southern California, Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and LSU each have been investigated or sanctioned by the NCAA.
Shalala said she was upset, disheartened and saddened by Shapiro's allegations.
"We will vigorously pursue the truth, wherever that path may lead, and I have insisted upon complete, honest and transparent co-operation with the NCAA from our staff and students," Shalala said in a statement.
Most cases are resolved in six to seven months, but more complex investigations take longer, an NCAA official said.
Shapiro was sentenced to prison in June for masterminding a US$930 million Ponzi scheme, plus ordered to pay more than $82 million in restitution to investors. He gave 100 hours of jailhouse interviews to Yahoo Sports, the website reported.
NCAA investigators were on the Miami campus this week and have interviewed Shalala and Shawn Eichorst, who was hired as athletic director in April to replace Kirby Hocutt. Golden, who is in his first year as Miami's coach after Randy Shannon was fired, said he's eager to obtain answers quickly, in part so his players don't repeat past mistakes.
"If they were exposed to Mr. Shapiro, clearly we have to make sure we prevent that going forward," Golden said. "How did this guy, if he did, get around our players like that? ... We want to make sure it never happens again. It shouldn't happen."
Yahoo Sports published its story Tuesday, saying in addition to the Shapiro interviews conducted over 11 months, it audited thousands of pages of financial and business records to examine his claims, some involving events nearly a decade ago. The NCAA's four-year statute of limitations doesn't apply when there is a pattern of wilful violations that continues into the past four years.
A person familiar with the situation said much of Shapiro's access to Hurricane programs in recent years was approved by Hocutt, who is now at Texas Tech. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
Hocutt, the person said, allowed Shapiro on the sideline before football games at times during the 2008 season, plus invited him to select gatherings reserved for the athletic department's biggest donors.
"That's what Kirby did," the person said. "His No. 1 job was to raise money and this Nevin Shapiro guy was one of the few people Kirby could get to write cheques."
In a statement, Hocutt said Shapiro was treated like other members of the Hurricane Club.
"While I was athletics director, the benefits and experiences Mr. Shapiro received were consistent with those provided to others at his membership level," Hocutt said. "I never personally approved any special access for Mr. Shapiro to university athletics events or programs."
Larry Coker, who coached the Hurricanes in 2001-06, said he had not been contacted by the NCAA or Miami about the investigation. Any coach or athletic direction involved in the case who now works at another school could be subject to NCAA punishment if found guilty of a violation.
The AP interviewed more than a dozen former Hurricanes, and their reactions ranged from denials of involvement to declining comment. New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle declined to discuss the allegations but said Shapiro is mad about being in prison and directing his emotions at the Hurricanes.
"There is a lot of drama going on, and it's all caused by one guy, one angry guy," Rolle said. "Obviously he is on a rampage to cause havoc."
Miami was once among the best and most intimidating teams in college football, but Shapiro was around the program during a period of only modest success for the Hurricanes, who won their most recent national championship in 2001.
"I'm not upset about the U allegations," tweeted Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez, who pitched at Miami. "I'm mad we didn't win anything while we were cheating."