CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Eight University of Miami football players were suspended by the NCAA on Tuesday, six days before the Hurricanes open their season at Maryland.
The NCAA – college athletics’ governing body – said all eight players accepted impermissible benefits from former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, now in prison for a $930 million Ponzi scheme. All must repay the value of the benefits they received, from free meals to nightclub cover charges to entertainment at a strip club, and more.
The NCAA’s decision brought clarity to the university’s immediate football future, as five prominent athletes — quarterback Jacory Harris, receiver Travis Benjamin and defensive players Marcus Forston, Sean Spence and Adewale Ojomo — only have to stay home for Monday’s opening game in College Park, Md.
The most severe penalty went to Olivier Vernon, another defensive starter, who must miss six games and repay more than $1,200 in benefits received from Shapiro.
Starting safety Ray-Ray Armstrong and reserve tight end Dyron Dye, on offense, will each miss four games and repay benefits — approximately $788 to Armstrong from Shapiro and approximately $738 in benefits to Dye from Shapiro.
Harris’ suspension means that sophomore Stephen Morris will open as the starting quarterback.
Coach Al Golden said Tuesday night on Hurricane Hotline, Miami’s weekly radio show on WQAM, that the NCAA’s decision will help his players move forward. “I think there will be a sense of relief,” Golden said, “a sense of renewal in the morning, and hopefully now (a sense) of focus to get ready for Maryland.
“I feel badly for some of the older young people that have to sit out. They’ve grown so much in the last eight, nine months, let alone since these things occurred three years ago.”
The suspensions will all begin with the opener against the Terrapins and must be served consecutively. Chris Freet, the school’s associate athletic director for communications, said the suspended players are still allowed to practice with the team.
Miami later announced that football players Brandon McGee, JoJo Nicolas, Micanor Regis and Vaughn Telemaque have been cleared by the NCAA to play in all games, though each must make repayment in amounts less than $100.
The NCAA usually allows student-athletes to give the money to charitable organizations.
Senior Marcus Robinson was cleared of any NCAA violations and will not face any penalties.
Additionally, in a matter Freet said was unrelated to the NCAA issue, receiver Aldarius Johnson was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. He is not expected to return to the team.
Miami President Donna Shalala had said last week that the eligibility of 15 student-athletes was in question after a Yahoo! Sports report first revealed the alleged violations by dozens of UM players from 2002 through 2010.
The rulings Tuesday did not signify the end of the NCAA’s investigation into the university’s alleged wrongdoings involving Shapiro. The overall investigation could find UM guilty of lack of institutional control, for example, which could result in losing athletic scholarships and being banned from postseason play.
“The average case takes 11 months,” Stacey Osburn, the NCAA’s associate director of public and media relations, told The Miami Herald last week. “Other cases, six or seven months. But there have been some cases that have taken years.”
NCAA President Mark Emmert said recently that the NCAA began investigating Miami in March. On Tuesday, in an interview with NPR, Emmert was asked about the possibility of the “death penalty” being imposed on UM in this case. The death penalty means a program cannot compete in a sport for at least a year.
“I’m not on record saying the death penalty should be applied in the (Miami) case,” Emmert said. “I’m just saying you can’t take the death penalty off the table.”
In the NCAA’s written release after its rulings, Kevin Lennon, vice president of academic and membership affairs, referred specifically to violations during the recruitment of Vernon, Armstrong and Dye to Miami.
“From regular reviews of our rules to the presidential retreat earlier this month, our members have continually stressed that involvement of third parties during recruitment will not be tolerated, and there must be accountability for inappropriate behavior,” Lennon said.
According to the NCAA, Forston “received more than $400 in extra benefits from Shapiro and athletic personnel, including athletic equipment, meals, nightclub cover charges and entertainment at a gentleman’s club.”
The release said Spence “received approximately $275 in benefits, including meals, transportation, as well as cover charges and entertainment at a gentleman’s club. Ojomo received $240 in extra benefits, including a meal and nightclub cover charges. Benjamin received more than $150 in extra benefits, including meals and entertainment. Harris received more than $140 in benefits from meals, entertainment, transportation and nightclub cover charges.”
Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst said in a written release that the players involved in this case “understand that their actions demand consequences.
“This university has the highest standards in all of our academic and athletic endeavors. We will remain steadfast in our commitment to continue to build winning programs with the utmost of integrity. We will be more vigilant in our compliance and continue to work with the NCAA on the joint investigation to determine the facts.”
The university can appeal any athlete’s penalty to the NCAA’s committee on student-athlete reinstatement _ on which Miami deputy athletic director Tony Hernandez serves. Hernandez would have to recuse himself. A student-athlete remains ineligible until the appeals process is over.
If the university does appeal any decisions, it is unknown how long it would take for the committee to make its rulings.
– Miami Herald sports writer Manny Navarro contributed to this report.