Keeping Score

University of Miami’s Booster Scandal: Who Really Deserves Punishment?

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Quarterback Jacory Harris is interviewed during Media Day for the University of Miami football team in Coral Gables, Florida, Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wednesday, the NCAA handed down its punishment for eight current University of Miami players who accepted benefits deemed illegal under its rules. On August 16, a report from Yahoo! Sports exposed large-scale impropriety at the University of Miami; according to the report, former booster, and currently-jailed Ponzi-schemer, Nevin Shapiro handed out impermissible benefits to at least 72 players over an eight-year period.

One player, starting defensive end Olivier Vernon, got a six-game suspension for accepting more than $1,200 in benefits from Shapiro while the university was recruiting him. According to an NCAA investigation, Shapiro paid for Vernon’s meals, transportation, access to his game suite, drinks, as well as cover charges at two different nightclubs. Two other players got gifts from both Shapiro and “athletics personnel” while Miami was recruiting them. Starting safety Aravious “Ray Ray” Armstrong and tight end Dyron Dye were suspended for four games, and must repay $788 and $738, respectively, for “five nights of impermissible lodging from institutional staff during their unofficial visits, transportation, multiple meals, and entertainment at a gentleman’s club.”

(MORE: Why the University of Miami’s Football Program Is in Hot Water)

Five other players — all starters, including quarterback Jacory Harris — will miss one game for accepting similar benefits ranging between $140 and $400. (Miami opens the season against Maryland on Sept. 5). They were already enrolled at Miami while receiving these benefits, and they too will repay the money.

You can make a larger argument that any penalty against these players is unfair, because all they did was operate in a free, fair market. They were young kids offered money and a good time from some guy associated with Miami. Who wouldn’t want that? But the broken college sports system does have rules, and fair or not, these kids need to know them and follow them. High school recruiting is a big business, and it’s no secret that you should avoid boosters who shower gifts.

So within this context, this punishment seems fair and appropriate. Some observers have labeled it a “slap-in-the-wrist,” but try telling that to Vernon, who will miss about half a season, or 12.5% of his college career. He’ll never get that back. As for the one-game penalties, you can say this: these players will be missing an important game, the season opener against a conference opponent. And should the NCAA ruin the season of a player for taking $140 for food and a few extra perks? Especially when said player receives no compensation for his labor.

(MORE: Miami’s Football Scandal Clouds The Progress of a School and a City)

The true culprit here is the university, who either knowingly let Shapiro run wild, or did a horrible job of policing its program. And the NCAA is not done with the university. In its statement, the NCAA points out that certain “athletic personnel” were doling out extras. One player received “impermissible lodging from institutional staff.” Here, the NCAA is not talking about Shapiro. They are talking about university employees handing out goodies.

For Miami fans, here’s the most ominous section of the NCAA’s statement: “Reinstatement decisions are independent of the NCAA enforcement process and typically are made once the facts of the student-athlete’s involvement are determined. This is typically well in advance of infractions decisions. The enforcement investigation into the University of Miami is ongoing.”

It sounds like infractions — the reduction of scholarships, bans for post-season play, etc. — are coming for Miami. The University of Southern California, for example, received a two-year bowl ban and loss of scholarships thanks to the Reggie Bush scandal (he took money from marketers in college).

Miami will pay the price for its sins. And if you think the suspended players got off easy, know that if Miami is hit with sanctions, these players may suffer plenty more in the future.

LIST: Nine College Sports Scandals Through History

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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