"It's déjà vu all over again." -- Yogi Berra
"The more things change, the more they stay the same." -- Alphonse Karr, French novelist
The quotes seem appropriate considering the revelations coming out of the University of Miami from Yahoo! Sports' 11-month investigation.
Twenty-five years ago, a disgruntled linebacker from Southern Methodist University sat down with me on camera. David Stanley told me he received $25,000 cash for committing to SMU in 1983. He said that for the next two years, he and his parents continued to receive monthly payments of $750. Stanley said the payments were made by SMU assistant coach Bootsie Larsen and later SMU recruiting coordinator Henry Lee Parker.
In a rather dramatic on-camera confrontation, we presented Parker with an envelope Stanley and his mother claimed contained one of those monthly payments. The envelope was SMU stationary. Parker's initials were written on the return address. The date on the postmark meant SMU was eligible for the NCAA's death penalty, and the look on Parker's face said far more about the truth than his verbal denials.
The story culminated more than two years of work. SMU's president, athletic director, head football coach and recruiting coordinator abruptly resigned, and by the time the dust had settled, the NCAA handed down the death penalty that led to the cancellation of SMU's 1987 and 1988 seasons, the university changed its form of governance, boosters were banned for life, the Methodist Bishops investigated and the trail led to Texas Governor Bill Clements -- who admitted he had known about the payments and had ordered that they continue even while SMU had been on probation.
The old Southwest Conference broke up, starting a trend in which the larger universities realigned themselves into super conferences.
As much as our story was aimed at SMU, it was also a test of whether the NCAA meant business when it enacted the death penalty. When presented with the evidence, would it actually pull the trigger? It did and SMU football has never been the same.
The question today is will the NCAA do it again? Are the things that agent/booster Nevin Shapiro says he did at Miami any different than what the SMU boosters did? Yes and no.
Shapiro has a 20-year federal prison sentence hanging over him after pleading guilty to securities fraud and money laundering. He's squealing about helping Miami break NCAA regulations because the players he helped wouldn't help him when he asked for bail money and other assistance. David Stanley squealed because he felt SMU ruined his chances for a career in the NFL when he was benched. Never mind that he had acquired a cocaine habit and SMU even paid to help him break his addiction.
Truth is, some of the same things that got SMU the death penalty 25 years ago have been going on at USC, Ohio State and Miami. The primary difference between then and now is the amount of money, and money is what it's all about. Ticket prices to games have soared. Larger stadiums are being built. Conferences created their own cable television networks, and now an individual school -- the University of Texas -- has its own cable TV channel.
After it became clear that the death penalty decimated SMU's football program, the conventional wisdom was that the NCAA would never again hand down such harsh punishment. So an atmosphere where no one was going to let the death penalty happen again provided the perfect haven for "anything goes." No one was going to do anything about it. What better environment for those who would cross over the line to operate in?
While those who argue against capital punishment question whether the threat of lethal injection would really cause a would-be killer to consider his actions before committing a heinous act, others will argue it is a deterrent. It reminds me of what Jackie Sherrill retorted after our 1985 story about quarterback Kevin Murray taking improper inducements from a Texas A&M booster: "Kevin didn't rob a bank. He didn't shoot anybody."
True, but some folks might say it's highway robbery when coaches, athletic directors, conference officials, college presidents, universities and television networks make millions of dollars off of college football players who aren't allowed to be paid a dime of that revenue for their contribution. In 1986, former academic All-American basketball player Dick DeVenzio argued that the only amateurs in big-time college sports were the athletes. He called for college players to form a union and strike the major bowl games. Perhaps it's finally time to go beyond the hypocrisy and do just that.
So does the NCAA have the courage to hand down the death penalty again?
Can it afford not to?
-- John Sparks is a 40-year veteran of television news and currently a professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. His work in breaking the SMU pay-for-play story in 1986 resulted in the NCAA issuing its first and only death penalty to a college football program.
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