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Sports Scandal Mars Miami Students' Return To Class


At the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, classes begin today, and the fall semester starts amidst allegations by a former booster, a convicted felon, that he provided cash, gifts and prostitutes to more than 70 members of the football and basketball teams. The NCAA is investigating and it's widely expected there will be penalties. NPR's Greg Allen reports it's a blow to the football program and to fans who were expecting a big season from the Hurricanes.

GREG ALLEN: Senior Jeff Calvert didn't hear about the Hurricanes sports scandal until he arrived on campus last week. At first, he says, he didn't think it was too serious, but then he began reading and hearing more.

JEFF CALVERT: And I just got kind of furious, especially 'cause I've had four years of pretty bad football and now it seems like it could be coming crashing down. So it's a little frustrating, you know?

ALLEN: Just off-campus at the All Canes Shop, Harry Rothwell usually does a brisk business in Hurricanes paraphernalia, everything from T-shirts to car flags.

HARRY ROTHWELL: This is our Christmas. I mean the football season is when we do the most business of the year, and quite honestly, since the story broke last Tuesday, we have seen sales decline, we have had a lot of disheartened customers and fans that are kind of, I guess, in a wait-and-see mode. What's going to happen? Are we going to go forward? Are we going to go backwards?

ALLEN: It's not like there haven't been sports scandals before at the University of Miami. In the 1990s, the NCAA took away 31 scholarships and banned Miami from post-season play because of a scandal in which athletes and a university employee stole more than $200,000 from the federal Pell Grant program. Some here say these allegations, if they prove to be true, are still not of that caliber, but they have draped uncertainty over a football program that's just been reborn with a new athletic director and a new coach.

Pity Miami's new coach, Al Golden, who was widely respected and sought after for his work rebuilding Temple's football program. While Golden's working to prepare his team for the season opener against Maryland, in news conferences there's one topic that keeps coming up.

AL GOLDEN: If they were exposed to Mr. Shapiro, you know, clearly we have to make sure that we prevent that from going forward. So how do you do that? Well, you do that by getting to the facts, by getting to the truth.

ALLEN: More than 70 Hurricanes athletes have been implicated by former booster Nevin Shapiro, who's now serving time in federal prison for running a nearly billion dollar Ponzi scheme. Those athletes include at least 12 members of the current football team. For the past few weeks, NCAA officials have been on campus in Miami conducting interviews are part of their investigation.

But apart from Golden's few words in media sessions, University of Miami officials have said almost nothing about Shapiro's allegations. This week, the usually loquacious UM president, Donna Shalala, tried to satisfy some of the media questions but releasing a prerecorded video statement.

DONNA SHALALA: I'm saddened and disappointed by the allegations leveled against some current and former members of the university community. However, I'm heartened by the kind of displays of support in recent days.

ALLEN: Shalala herself may not emerge unscathed from these allegations. A prominent feature of the Yahoo! sports story that broke the scandal is a photo of Shalala standing next to Nevin Shapiro, smiling at a $50,000 check he wrote for the school's basketball program.

Billy Corben is a Miami alumnus and a filmmaker whose ESPN documentary "The U" details the bad boy days of Hurricanes football in the 1980s. He's critical of Shalala and other university administrators for, in his words, throwing student athletes and coaches under the bus. Corben believes it's not realistic to hold student athletes to a higher standard of behavior than university administrators themselves.

BILLY CORBEN: Who are allowed to just take money and take money and take money from people like Nevin Shapiro, but then have to with one hand they can take a check from Nevin Shapiro, with the other hand wag a finger in the student athlete's face and say, do as we say, not as we do.

ALLEN: There's no word on when the NCAA will complete its investigation. And for the Hurricanes, a football season once full of hope will begin under a dark cloud.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.