College Football Season Kicks Off As Scandals Mount

Guests

Charles Robinson, investigative reporter, Yahoo! Sports
Josh Luchs, former NFL agent

Allegations that a University of Miami football booster showered players with unauthorized gifts are only the latest in a string of charges against college football programs nationwide. The NCAA has investigated or sanctioned almost 20 teams since 2010.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Scandal and cynicism accompany the sis-boom-bah that marks the start of the college football season this week. NCAA investigations at USC, Ohio State, Michigan, North Carolina and Georgia Tech in the past 18 months; now the University of Miami, where a major donor to the school says he provided current and former players cash, clothing, jewelry - even prostitutes.

And while NCAA president Mark Emmert described the Miami case as nothing short of shocking, there's little evidence that fans care. Attendance and TV ratings continue to soar, and critics charge that nothing will be done to upset a multibillion-dollar business.

If you've been involved with college football, what needs to change? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Dr. Barron Lerner suggests that well-meaning cancer doctors sometimes confuse doing more with what's best for their patients. But first, college football scandals, and we begin with the reporter who broke the University of Miami story, Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports, and he joins us now from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Good to have you with us today.

CHARLES ROBINSON: Thank you for the time, Neal.

CONAN: And as shocking as all of the allegations in your story are, maybe the most important one is that this booster, Nevin Shapiro, told you that at least seven coaches at Miami knew what was going on.

ROBINSON: Yeah. That really is what takes it beyond the typical, sort of run-of-the-mill NCAA investigations, particularly the ones that we've seen over the last 18 months, mostly because whenever you talk about these investigations, they tend to orbit around students - student-athletes. They tend to orbit around players receiving illicit benefits. But institutionally, I think if you were able to get the NCAA to speak on how it thinks it can undergo a change in the culture, in the landscape of cheating, it's really about the institutions and the coaches that concerns the NCAA the most.

CONAN: And this suggests a program that's out of control.

ROBINSON: Often to the NCAA, yeah. That's what crosses that line of whether or not there is institutional control, typically - what's in place to keep the rules from being broken, and who's involved. If it's just players, I think the NCAA looks at it fairly often as something that's very isolated, a problem that's more emblematic of the system and sort of the fabric of college sports. But when you get into coaches being involved - potentially, administrators - and then a lack of oversight or compliance, that's when the NCAA says this is where things are beyond control.

CONAN: As we look at this particular case, though, are any of the players named in this story going to be playing for Miami when they kick off against the University of Maryland next Monday night?

ROBINSON: Well, the University of Miami came out and said that 15 athletes currently on the roaster had their eligibility under review. Now, since then, the University of Miami has forwarded the names of eight athletes, declared eight athletes ineligible, essentially forwarding their names to the NCAA and saying here's eight athletes, here's what we know about, what they took from this booster, Mr. Nevin Shapiro. And we need you to decide what are the ramifications.

And Miami also, beyond those eight athletes, there were a handful, a number - I believe five other players - who had taken something from Mr. Shapiro, but it was so minor that their eligibility is not considered to be really an issue at this stage. But for those eight, the names that were forwarded over to the NCAA, right now, they're - I think whether or not they will be able to play in that season opener is definitely hanging in the balance.

CONAN: And tell us, why did Nevin Shapiro talk to you?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, I think it was a number of reasons. I mean, we started digging into Nevin Shapiro's background a year - nearly a year before this report came out, a full 11 months. And initially, we went from August of 2010 into late November, early December of 2010, and he would not speak to us.

We were rebuffed several times by his attorney, who, because Nevin Shapiro was in the midst of sorting out his Ponzi case, a $930 million Ponzi case, with the federal government, I think the feeling was they didn't want him talking to anyone else and potentially creating other complications in his negotiations with the government.

And really in December, I think what changed was, I was in Miami working on the story. I approached Nevin Shapiro's attorney, and I said look, we've been working on this since August; we've come up with enough information that we're going to be able to write a story. It's going to happen. Now, whether or not your client chooses to take part in this, whether or not your client chooses to cooperate and put some kind of context around what we know, is up to him.

And ultimately, that ended up - culminating in a phone call between myself and Nevin Shapiro, where I explained the same thing. Here's what we've got. Here's what we know about you and your impropriety. It's now up to you to decide whether or not you want to take part in this reporting process. And a day later, he decided that he wanted to.

CONAN: And he's going to be spending some considerable time in jail. It should be said his Ponzi scheme is unrelated to the allegations involving student-athletes at the University of Miami. But he was also an important donor to the university as well. There's a picture that accompanied your article - of the president of the university, Donna Shalala, accepting a big check.

ROBINSON: Certainly, you know, Nevin Shapiro gave - you know, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations that Nevin Shapiro doled out over his time as a booster, which began back in 2001. Very big donor to the football program. The check in question, that photograph of Nevin Shapiro with current U of M president Donna Shalala, that was a $50,000 check that Nevin Shapiro donated to the basketball program. And then Nevin Shapiro now says hey, that was pure Ponzi money at that stage in my career as a businessman.

So no doubt that Nevin Shapiro had more than just a cursory relationship with very powerful people at Miami.

CONAN: And these last 18 months, these - none of these cases is exactly unique. None is - the old case in Texas at Dallas, well, that case, the old Pony Express case at SMU, that makes Miami - it might be comparable. But all of these coming out in the last 18 months, what's going on here?

ROBINSON: Well, I think if you really step back and look at it - you go back to the summer of 2010, and that is when after what was essentially a four-year investigation by the NCAA into the University of Southern California, Reggie Bush, former Heisman Trophy winner for USC, and then also O.J. Mayo, who had been, for one year, the top player in their basketball program, four years of an investigation by the NCAA culminated in what really were the most harsh sanctions we had seen for, particularly a college football program, going back to - as you said - SMU's Pony Express in 1987, when SMU received that death penalty.

If you put that in the context of the NCAA the last few decades, it felt like a turning point only because it was such an aggressive line of sanctioning. And then following that, the investigators - really, the investigative arm of the NCAA seemed to take a far more aggressive posture. All of a sudden, you were hearing - though news channels, through sources - that NCAA investigators were fanning out to multiple universities across the country, looking into a wide array of potential scandal. And as you said, since that has taken place, you've had North Carolina; you've had Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon - all of these major football programs that in some way, shape or form have been part of an investigation.

And I think it's maybe a little bit of a culture change within the NCAA - that hey, they are going to become more aggressive. And the old, typical stock sort of philosophy of not touching the major programs really isn't - it doesn't ring true so much anymore.

CONAN: Yet these - this is, essentially, people investigating themselves. The NCAA is all of these universities and colleges together, and they all have a collective interest in making sure the multibillion-dollar business goes on.

ROBINSON: Absolutely. I mean, the NCAA, I know it's framed, typically, in the media as sort of - when people talk about the NCAA, they think it's this sort of, you know, bogeyman in Indianapolis, and that's sort of what people concentrate on. But the reality is, the NCAA is comprised of - it's the universities; it's the institution; it's the presidents; it's the power conferences and the conference commissioners. And in some way, shape or form, it's - there's no getting around the fact that they are all in bed together. You're asking a governing body to look over universities that essentially, help to establish that governing body's power in the first place.

So it's a little bit of an awkward marriage between - the people who are expected to enforce are also made up by individuals who at - you know, at some point in their lives typically had worked within university structures. And I think that's sort of what creates a lot of the gray area that people tend to attack when they go after the NCAA.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who have been involved in college football. What needs to be changed -800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. And Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports, it's fair to say a lot of ideas are being considered, but it doesn't seem that an awful lot changes.

ROBINSON: Absolutely. I think over the years, there have been a lot of ideas thrown out there. But I think, you know, there's a wide range of opinions why the change doesn't occur. And most of it tends to focus on money - as it should, because college sports at this stage has become a - it's a billion-dollar industry.

It is a professional - it is, essentially, a professional sport that is sold as amateur sport. And that's the marriage, the interesting marriage that becomes the problem - that this is sold as amateurism. It's sold as amateur athletes, student athletes, and yet it's packaged professionally. It's sold for billions of dollars to networks and endorsements, and it is essentially - particularly college football - it is the NFL but packaged, repackaged, as amateur football.

CONAN: And is it because these athletes aren't paid that leads to temptation to pay people under the table or shower them with gifts if they attend a certain university or not? Is it inherently corrupt?

ROBINSON: Absolutely. I think - I've told people this before. I believe that college sports - particularly college football, the fabric of college football, because of college football's existence as a commodity, because of singular athletes, their existence as a commodity, because of coaches being a commodity that is sellable - there will always be an inherent risk of impropriety.

And you - I know there's a lot of talk about paying college athletes. There's a lot of talk about, you know, in a way, sort of professionalizing the labor in college sports. But it's also complicated because you begin to cross so many lines that so far have kept, as I said, the NFL and college football separate.

But it is inherent to the sport itself. As long as it is packaged professionally, and it is sold professionally, there will always be individuals - whether it's agents, whether it's institutions, whether it's boosters - who will treat players as commodities and thusly want to provide for them as commodities.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who have been involved in college football. What needs to be changed? Is it inherently corrupt? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Our guest is Charles Robinson, who broke one of the biggest scandals at the University of Miami. When we come back, we'll talk with a former professional football agent, who says he paid players, too. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The college football season kicks off this week, but this year the story is off the field. Another scandal, this time at the University of Miami. The investigation continues.

But NCAA president Mark Emmert told David Greene on MORNING EDITION today that the allegations are shocking. While no decisions have been made, he said all options are on the table, including the so-called death penalty - where the NCAA could end a school's football program entirely for a set period of time.

MARK EMMERT: 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.

CONAN: You can hear all of that interview with NCAA president Mark Emmert at our website. Go to npr.org, click on MORNING EDITION.

The University of Miami is far from the only school to face an investigation into improper behavior. If you've been involved with college football, what needs to change? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Charles Robinson, an investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. He broke the University of Miami story. Let's get a caller on the line. Chris(ph) is with us from Kernersville in North Carolina.

CHRIS: Yes. Basically, my comment was, I was a Division II college athlete, and we - you know, Division II athletes don't get scholarships for athletics, Division II or Division III. So you play out of love for the sport. But I think it's a little unfair that so much money is devoted toward allowing athletes to go to school for playing a sport. I mean, it's just - you know, that's not the reason that an athlete should get a scholarship, in my opinion.

CONAN: What is the reason an athlete should get a scholarship?

CHRIS: Well, what I'm saying is that a general student should not be getting a scholarship - or a general athlete should not be getting a scholarship for taking classes, for education. If you're going to get a scholarship, you need to have the grades, and you need to be someone who is really, really serious about your grades. I don't think getting a scholarship for school should be based on athletics.

But - although I do believe that all these profits that are generated by the NCAA, something should go into making these colleges more affordable with all the profits that they generate, because it's huge. The college basketball and college football revenues are huge, in my opinion.

CONAN: Charles Robinson, he's not wrong about that. The colleges and universities will say those revenues not only support the general fund and all the students, but all those other sports that don't make any money.

ROBINSON: Yeah, there's no doubt, and interesting, he brings up an argument that is - it's been pushed out there before, this idea that perhaps we should separate this marriage of student and athlete, that student-athlete is inherently a conflict between - you've got guys who - and I've covered professional sports; I covered the NFL for nearly 10 years. And you would get into conversations with football players who would say to you: Look, I really was not that interested in the academic side. You know, I knew I wanted to be a professional athlete. I wanted to play in the NFL. And you know, academics were not necessarily a priority.

And it strikes at the foundation, sort of the seams of the NCAA, because it is built on that idea of amateurism. But if you go beyond revenue-producing sports, like college basketball, like college football, the fact is the NCAA and this idea of a student-athlete actually works very well in many other non-producing sports: lacrosse, baseball, soccer, you know, crew.

There are many other sports that the NCAA oversees under that umbrella where its founding principles of being a student-athlete, and marrying education as well as athletics, has worked out very, very well. It's just - the problems really come into play when you're talking about guys who are playing for revenue-producing teams that generate millions and millions of dollars for teams - or excuse me, for institutions and then obviously, those outside influences that want to treat those athletes as professionals, not as student- athletes.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is a former - one of those outside influences, a former NFL agent, Josh Luchs, who admits now that he gave players cash, concert tickets and other gifts - the first former agent to admit such improper activity. He told his story in a feature in sportsillustrated.com last fall. He joins us from a studio in California. Good to have you with us today.

JOSH LUCHS: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: And you've told your story about - you spent about, I guess half your career was involved in undercover payments to athletes, to presumably sign up with you after they finished their college careers.

LUCHS: That's correct. Back in October of last year, it was SI magazine, a writer named George Dorman(ph) approached me and encouraged me - much like what was just shared with you from Charles Robinson, the way that he had talked with Nev Shapiro - and kind of explained what was going on, the atmosphere that existed. And based on my circumstances at the time, I felt like it was the right thing to do at the right time, and it was the right message. And so I got it out there. The first 10 years, I did pay players. The next 10 years, I did it more by the book.

CONAN: And you have to say, though, you established your business in the first 10 years and were a little bit more able to afford some ethics later on.

LUCHS: Absolutely. There's no question about it. I mean, I did what I did, and I was a product of an environment. I'm not making excuses for my behavior. I certainly - I don't think that that benefits me or anyone else. It probably just annoys listeners, to try to hear somebody trying to justify behavior.

I'm just sharing my experiences, offering up my perspective. And whatever value it is to the powers that be at the NCAA, or listeners, in helping to determine the next steps to take from here, then I'm happy to do that. I've done what I've done, and I'd like to be a part of the solution.

CONAN: You were part of the problem. How big is the problem? Were you alone, or were there a lot of other people doing what you did?

LUCHS: Well, I - it's - look, the Nev Shapiro situation shocked even me, and there wasn't much I hadn't seen. The depths that this went, the corruption that ran not only through, you know, a guy who eventually became tied to a sports agent named Michael Hugh(ph), who actually - most people don't realize this - before becoming a sports agent, he was the - he was in the personnel department. I think he had the role of the vice president of something there with the Jacksonville Jaguars. So this guy was in the NFL, he was an NFL insider who then became an agent. And then this Nev Shapiro, who was a booster, used his influence, apparently - from what I read in Charles' story - to help to siphon players to an agency.

So the corruption runs not just with agents - who seem to be where the focal point is. Understand, the Reggie Bush case was not an agent, it was a wannabe marketeer. So you have marketing agents; you have financial advisers; you have coaches who are acting as runners across the country. And Charles also was involved in a North Carolina story with a coach named John Blake(ph), who, you know, was siphoning players to a sports agent who I used to work with.

So it runs deep, all the way back to high school coaches who are working as runners, in many cases, as well. So it's prevalent and it's commonplace, and that's the environment in the world that we're operating in.

CONAN: Here's an email from the other side of the equation, this from Leslie(ph). I was married to a UCLA quarterback who was on a full scholarship. He was not allowed to have a job, but his monthly quote-unquote stipend was $130 per month.

With that money we needed to eat, pay rent, pay bills, etc. If it hadn't been for the boosters, alumni, we couldn't have made it. They provided jobs that paid under the table, and sold our game tickets for higher prices than we ever could have.

And Charles Robinson, what she's describing, if that had come out when her then-husband was at school, well, he would've gotten put on probation and maybe the school, too.

ROBINSON: Absolutely. That's - what she's describing is a textbook NCAA violation, and that is also a common refrain that you hear from athletes: Hey, look, my monthly stipend is not something that generally will feed me. It's not something that will generally clothe me. And it's hard for me to really mount an argument against that, because I've never been a college athlete who's had to survive on a monthly stipend in that fashion.

Now, I know that nowadays, college athletes can have jobs. I mean, there's - now, there are limits placed on those and - but there is an ability for college athletes to work nowadays. It's not just a stipend situation. But I also recognize that's difficult because you're talking about athletes who have to spend X number of hours in not only classrooms but also on the football field and, you know, studying for not just an algebra test or a geometry test but also studying for that Saturday's opponent.

And it is not, by any means, an easy existence when you talk about the amount of time that is taken up in a particular athlete's day or week. And I think that's also another one of the factors that creates the opportunity for a Josh Luchs - or really, anyone out there - a Nevin Shapiro, any booster, any agent, any coach, any friend of the program to say hey, let me help you out here, let me get you by and thus - obviously - comes into conflict with the NCAA standards.

CONAN: Let's go next to Sam. Sam is with us from Beaufort, North Carolina.

SAM: Hi. I love college sports. And I saw The Fab Five story a few months back, about Michigan State. And what struck me was that ...

CONAN: This was the great basketball team of some years ago but yeah, go ahead. I'm sorry.

OK. That - I think the solution should be to give them a fair share so that they're comfortable and not treated like slaves. I think the NCAA is just - and all those folks are trying to keep all the money that they can for themselves. Release enough so they can live on it comfortably. They are - just as people are writing poems or playing music are going to be musicians or writers, they should be allowed to proudly exercise their skills. They're not going to be - if they're scholars, that's great. But let them live comfortably on a scholar - on a full scholarship that gets the soil money out of the way. And the ones that are lucky enough to go on to a professional career, they will make their millions later.

What struck me when I saw The Fab Five was, this was not big money. They were getting chump change to get - for clothes and stuff, basic stuff. And the college is getting millions. So it's really, I think, the NCAA treating the athletes like slaves when it should release some funds - not make them millionaires, but make them comfortable. That's what they're going to do when they grow up. There's nothing that needs to be looked askance, that they should be second-rate citizens because they're athletes.

CONAN: Josh Luchs, some people would say OK, that's a good idea, and they should get the profits from the sale of their jerseys and their likenesses on video games, that sort of thing. But well, there's always going to be if you're not paying top dollar, there's always going to be the opportunity for a little bit more if an agent is interested - or a marketer.

LUCHS: Well, you know, that's market value. And I think the caller brings up some very valid points. One of the things in listening to you guys discuss this, we're talking about scholarships that really don't provide a cost of full attendance there for the universities. Now, when Leslie called a few moments ago in reference to her husband, I couldn't help but think: I paid a lot of guys at UCLA over the years. And I'm wondering which quarterback it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUCHS: So I'm just going to have kind of keep that one - I'm trying to figure out who Leslie's husband was. But the cost of full attendance, there was a study done by the NCPA and Ithaca College just right around when my story came out in S.I., in October. And it showed that there was an average shortfall amount of around $3,000 per student. Now, what we've got here, we have a dynamic that is set up for predators, OK? And I know it's not a really nice word to say, and I understand that I was a part of that group of predators, but I was. And that's what we were doing, and we were trying to benefit ourselves by helping provide benefits to them.

And as long as there's that shortfall amount and that hole exists, and a lot of these kids that are recruited to these major programs, they are ill-prepared to compete academically. They didn't necessarily have the foundation you might need for the classes that they're asked to take, so they're provided tutors. And in many cases, even with a tutor's help, they're ill-prepared. Now, that's not all of them, but there are other ones financially who don't have the ability, they don't have the family support that can go ahead and fill that $3,000 shortfall amount.

In fact, that little bit of money that Leslie was referring to, I knew plenty of players that were sending their stipend money back home to their moms. So as long as that shortfall amount exists, you're going to have people, based on the need, that are going to step up and benefit themselves - like me - by filling that need. Now, if it's a greed issue, well, you're never going to be able to do anything with the greed other than, you know, state laws and, you know, good education about what the laws and the rules are - harsh punishments - that comes into play with greed. But I do think about 80 to 90 percent of the problem in college football stems from need.

CONAN: Sam, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about scandals in college football. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let me reintroduce our guests. You just heard Josh Luchs, a former NFL agent, former football - now a current football reformer and the author of a forthcoming book, "Illegal Procedure." Also with us is Charles Robinson, who's a sports investigative reporter with Yahoo! Sports and broke the University of Miami story.

Let's go next to Rasul(ph). Rasul with us from Norwich in Connecticut.

RASUL: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: All right.

RASUL: I'm calling because I'm a former Division I football player, and I think the whole idea of what's fair and what's not fair is a bit naive. People have no idea what goes into a Division I college football player's day. You know, you wake up - you have to take your classes in the morning. You can't have afternoon classes because you have practice. And then, you have mandatory study hall after that. So your day is from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. And, you know, the $20,000 a year for a scholarship, I mean, it's a value that I'm grateful for because I don't have those loans. But you're not allowed to work. And so me being an 18- to 22-year-old male, you know, if I wanted to go get something to eat or take a young lady out on a date, I couldn't even do that because I didn't have any money. You know, it's - and the idea of fairness, you know, from, you know, a Division III player to someone like, let's say, Cam Newton, for example...

CONAN: The...

RASUL: ...there's a great...

CONAN: ...Heisman trophy winner at the - at Auburn.

RASUL: Right. There's a huge difference in, I guess, the value that he's going to bring onto the field. And, you know, like anything, you know, what you produce - like the value that you provide, I think, you know, you should get compensated. Not that I think players should get paid. But I think it should be considered, you know - the idea of what's fair and what's not fair, you know, in the NCAA, and what they give, and what they give to players, and what they get. You know, when I hear people say what do I owe - what college players should and shouldn't get, you know, until you've been through it and seen what they have to do or go through from day to day, week to week, I think it would be hard for you to really judge and say that, you know?

CONAN: Rasul, thanks very much for the call, and good luck to you. You're still playing?

RASUL: No. I'm done. I have two kids now.

CONAN: OK. Then good luck with that education.

RASUL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Bruce. My best friend in high school was an excellent football player, was recruited by the University of Miami. They promised him the use of a convertible, several airline tickets so he could come home, girlfriends, and a number of other perks. This was in 1959. And this from Lloyd in Winterville, North Carolina. College athletes are not students. They are unpaid interns. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...this brings us all the way around. Charles Robinson, congratulations on the story. Thanks very much for your time today.

ROBINSON: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Charles Robinson is a sports investigative reporter with Yahoo! Sports, and he joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Josh Luchs, thank you for your time today. Good luck with your book.

LUCHS: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: The forthcoming book "Illegal Procedure: A Sports Agent Comes Clean on the Dirty Business of College Football"; it will be available next spring. Coming up, we'll be talking about the extreme surgery and cancer patients. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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