NCAA Probes 'Stunning' Allegations Against Miami

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College football gets underway this week but on-field play will likely be overshadowed by a scandal that's rocking the University of Miami. A former booster says he showered players on the schools football and basketball teams with lavish gifts. NCAA President Mark Emmert tells David Greene the allegations are "nothing short of shocking."

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

The college football season gets underway this week with some high profile matchups, like Oregon versus LSU, also Boise State and Georgia. The on-field play though is likely to be overshadowed by a scandal that is rocking the University of Miami. A former booster alleges that he showered players on Miami's football and basketball teams with gifts - from cash to lavish parties, even prostitutes. College sports' governing body, the NCAA, is investigating the allegations. And joining us now is the president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert.

Mr. Emmert, thank you for being here.

Dr. MARK EMMERT (President, NCAA): Oh, my pleasure, David.

GREENE: I want to first ask you, how did you react to these allegations against Miami?

Dr. EMMERT: Well, first of all, we've got to underscore the fact that they're allegations and that we're still investigating all of them to see what's fact and what's fiction. But the allegations themselves, of course, are nothing short of shocking. If true, of course, they're pretty stunning and would be a huge blow to the integrity questions around intercollegiate athletics.

GREENE: We are talking about this coming after some high profile programs like USC in Southern California, Auburn, Ohio State with, you know, some serious accusations against them. It seems like the problem is just really widespread.

Dr. EMMERT: Well, it certainly feels like it because of these very high profile cases. And I'm often asked whether I think it's better or worse than it's been in the past. And the fact is I don't know.

What I do know is that it's unacceptably high. We simply can't tolerate these kinds of actions and continue to promote our programs as having the integrity that we all expect of them.

GREENE: College football is a multibillion dollar sport with television contracts and marketing. Do you begin to have to question the whole notion that these are amateur athletes? Is that belief still relevant?

Dr. EMMERT: Well, I certainly believe it is. And I think it's essential to the whole notion of collegiate athletics. You know, they - the tension between what we can loosely call a commercial model and the collegiate model has been in play for more than a century.

And so we have been trying to find the right balance between making sure that our student athletes are first and foremost students, got to increase the academic expectations of young men and women.

We've got to make sure that we're supporting those young people well and the way we handle their grants and aids, their scholarships. We've got to make sure that we define integrity clearly in our rules and we don't focus on small ticky-tacky things but on those big questions of integrity and forthrightness. And then we've got to make sure that we've got a penalty structure that provides serious disincentives.

GREENE: Just to be clear about what you're suggesting. When you're talking about promoting integrity throughout college sports, as opposed to focusing on specifics like how many phone calls did a player get from a booster, I could see some critics saying, you know, people have been talking about integrity in college sports for decades and we still have these problems. How do you respond to that?

Dr. EMMERT: The key here is to focus on the adults. The fact is that coaches and administrators and people who are responsible for programs are the ones that really need to be held accountable here. And we have done that in the past on occasion, but perhaps not as sufficiently as we need to.

And if we can shift the attention to making sure that those that are ultimately responsible for programs conduct them in a way that's consistent with the values of higher education and intercollegiate athletics, I think we can have a serious impact. Will we get rid of all the problems in integrity? No, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be really clear about what we expect from people and hold them accountable for it. And we're going to do that.

GREENE: One idea is boosting scholarships. You know, acknowledging that athletics is their lives. More money could be controlled by the university but covering more than tuition and books. And this might compensate athletes for their performance, but in a controlled way, and maybe eliminate the need for boosters and illegal gifts. Would the NCAA consider that?

Dr. EMMERT: I want to be really clear about this one, because there's a lot of confusion about it. I happen to support the notion of increasing the size of our grant and aid, but only up to the legitimate ancillary costs of being a student.

I am adamantly opposed to the notion of paying student athletes to play their games. That converts them to employees. This is entirely about students playing the games.

If you increase to the full cost of attendance it adds maybe a couple of thousand dollars to the value of a full stipend for a student athlete. That doesn't address issues of going to nightclubs or to strip clubs or the kind of allegations that you've seen in Miami. Those allegations had nothing to do with the fact that student athletes didn't have sufficient resources to cover their cost of going to school. That's just bad behavior.

GREENE: You're on record saying that the so-called death penalty for the University of Miami ending the football program for a period of time is an option that is on the table depending on how this investigation plays out. What would you hope to accomplish with such a decision if it comes to that?

Dr. EMMERT: Well, again, let me be really clear. I'm not on record as saying the death penalty ought to apply in the University of Miami case. I'm just saying that you can't take the death penalty off the table for any of the cases that we're looking at.

In cases where we've got the most flagrant, most egregious infractions and cases that are really pervasive in the way they've theyve conducted themselves inappropriately - like with SMU back in the '80s

GREENE: So their method is - yeah.

Dr. EMMERT: Having the death penalty in the toolbox for the Committee on Infractions is appropriate. You would want to use it incredibly selectively because it has an impact not just on those who engaged in the inappropriate behavior, but it also has an impact on the whole school. It has an impact on their conference colleagues. It has an impact on future student athletes who might be at that school.

And so, it's something that you would want to use only as the most serious of deterrents, to demonstrate that there are some places that we simply cannot go in intercollegiate athletics.

GREENE: Mr. Emmert, thank you so much for your time.

Dr. EMMERT: My pleasure.

GREENE: Mark Emmert is president of the NCAA.

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