INDIANAPOLIS – NCAA President Mark Emmert says he's willing to back up his tough talk on punishing rule-breakers — even using the "death penalty" as a deterrent.
With salacious allegations swirling around Miami's football program, and one week after Emmert joined with university presidents to discuss toughening sanctions against cheating schools, the NCAA's leader said he believed the infractions committee should make the harshest penalty an option.
"If, and I say if, we have very unique circumstances where TV bans and death penalties are warranted, then I don't think they are off the table and I would be OK with putting those in place," Emmert told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday.
Emmert later said the "death penalty," which prohibits a school from competing in a sport, should only be used in rare cases. He was quick to distance his comments from the Miami case.
Convicted Ponzi scheme architect Nevin Shapiro has said he provided improper benefits to 72 Hurricanes football and basketball players from 2002-10 and that a handful of coaches in both programs were aware of the infractions. Yahoo Sports first reported the allegations following an 11-month investigation in which it said it audited thousands of business and financial documents and spent more than 100 hours interviewing Shapiro.
The NCAA has already spent five months investigating Miami and calls speculation about penalties for an ongoing case premature.
"I will say that the university is being extremely cooperative and that is extremely helpful," Emmert said. "But if, and I underline the word if, the allegations are true, that's extremely disappointing."
If the allegations are true, it would be the ugliest scandal in college sports in years and the worst during a 18-month span in which the NCAA has looked into football programs at Southern California, Auburn, Oregon, Ohio State, Michigan, North Carolina, LSU, Tennessee and Georgia Tech and basketball programs at Southern California and Connecticut. Miami makes both lists.
Yahoo Sports also published a photo of Miami President Donna Shalala, the Health and Human Services Secretary during the Clinton Administration, standing next to Shapiro. According to Shapiro's timeline, the infractions began when Paul Dee, a former NCAA's infractions committee chairman, was the school's athletic director.
While Emmert offered support for Shalala, he declined to comment on Dee.
"She's been a terrific leader in higher education, and I have great respect for her," Emmert said. "I can only imagine how much she's struggling with this, like I would have if this had happened on my watch."
The scope of the allegations has already created widespread debate over bringing back the "death penalty," which has been used only once — when the NCAA canceled SMU's 1987 football season because of a pay-for play scandal. The school decided not to play in 1988, either, as it tried to recover.
Schools with two major infractions cases during a five-year period are eligible for the sanction, though the NCAA says the timeframe can be expanded if it determines there was a willful intent to break the rules.
What happened at SMU has made the NCAA hesitant to use its toughest penalty again.
The Mustangs posted only one winning record over the next 20 years, didn't reach another bowl game until 2009 and the sanction is believed to have played a part in the breakup and eventual dissolution of the Southwest Conference.
Today, the implications could be even worse.
In an era when conferences have so many tie-ins to bowl games, along with lucrative television contracts, all the schools in a league could lose revenue.
NCAA presidents are weary of the stream of scandals. At last week's retreat, Penn State President Graham Spanier said university leaders had reached a "boiling point" only to see the Miami case jump into the headlines a few days later.
Julie Roe Lach, the NCAA's vice president for enforcement, said Wednesday that last week's presidential discussion included talk about more suspensions for coaches and more postseason bans for teams. Emmert believes the board of directors may also adopt proposals within months that give NCAA investigators more latitude to get information from third-party associates, such as boosters and agents.
While Spanier said there was solidarity among the presidents during last week's retreat, some of the most outspoken proponents of tougher sanctions came from schools already under the NCAA microscope. "We have got to get a handle on this and the presidents are absolutely determined, even the presidents of institutions that have had problems," he said.
When asked about Shalala's input, Spanier said: "She was in the meeting and she has been an incredible champion of getting this right."
Does that include using the "death penalty"?
Said Emmert: "I think there's a difference between conventional wisdom that's been around for almost 30 years now and what we need to do for appropriate deterrence."