Cheaters can't afford to be cheap

"It all comes down to the dollars," says one former hustler. "If they promise something you don't get, there will be problems." Illustration by Hi Carl for ESPN The Magazine

This column appears in the September 19, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

AS COLLEGE SPORTS SCANDALS GO, Nevin Shapiro's annihilation of Miami broke new ground with allegations of hookers, strippers, an abortion and a near-brawl in the Orange Bowl press box. But his motivation for telling all didn't spring from a guilty conscience. It was more visceral than that. The Ponzi schemer allegedly spent a good portion of his ill-gotten fortune on gifts for Miami players and coaches. When he got busted and went broke, he asked for a little scratch back. And when the Hurricanes didn't return the love, Shapiro sang like a jailed canary.

Kirk O. Hanson, professor of ethics at Santa Clara University, says most whistle-blowers "have the best interests of their institution and society at heart." But that doesn't appear to hold true in college athletics, where scandals usually erupt because somebody who knows where the bodies are buried gets stiffed -- then gets even. In the NCAA, for every Jan Gangelhoff, the guilt-ridden term-paper writer in the Minnesota basketball academic scandal of the 1990s, there are three Nevin Shapiros.

As a history lesson, let's go back to the 1980s and the scandal that led to the Mother of All Sanctions. Sean Stopperich was a high-caliber, low-income offensive lineman from Pittsburgh when he signed with SMU. To get Stopperich's name on the dotted line, his family allegedly was paid $5,000 by a Mustangs booster. Problem was, the deal apparently called for much more: a monthly allowance, a rent-free apartment, a trust fund for Stopperich and a job for his dad.

When the trust fund and job failed to materialize, Stopperich went to the NCAA, which ultimately put the Mustangs on three years of probation, banning the team from bowl appearances and stripping it of 45 scholarships. During that probationary period, another player, David Stanley, told the ABC affiliate in Dallas that he was still getting paid. The end result was the so-called death penalty, which shut down SMU football for the 1987 and '88 seasons and effectively killed it as a power program.

Now fast-forward to 1995. I was working in Louisville in the sports department at The Courier-Journal one May day when a phone call came in from a guy named Jimmy Thompson, a longtime hustler with an extensive rap sheet. Thompson alleged that with the help of a Louisville assistant basketball coach, he'd been making impermissible phone calls to Mark Blount, a seven-foot recruit. Thompson had copies of phone bills adding up to about $3,000 that he said Louisville assistant coach Larry Gay had promised to pay. But when Blount signed with Pitt, the hustler got hustled.

So Thompson dialed up the newspaper, sparking an NCAA investigation during which Gay resigned. The Cardinals were hit with recruiting restrictions and probation for major violations. And why did Thompson come forward? "I needed that money," he said recently. "It all comes down to the dollars. If they promise you something and you don't get it, there are going to be problems."

Lesson learned: Pinching pennies can lead to probation and termination. Louisville could have avoided all that drama for the paltry sum of $3,000 -- the amount required to settle Thompson's phone bill.

USC learned a similar lesson last year, but there was more money involved. Aspiring agents Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels treated star tailback Reggie Bush and his family to houses and cars worth $290,000 while he was a Trojan. After Bush juked them when he turned pro, Lake's tell-all led to NCAA sanctions. Bush became the only player forced to relinquish his Heisman Trophy.

It's a sad tale but not an unfamiliar one. Hanson, the Santa Clara professor, believes the ever-increasing revenue in college athletics will only intensify the urge to cheat. "There's almost a gold-rush mentality, a feeling that 'this is my big chance, so I better pull out all the stops,'" he says. "There's a major temptation to shave the ethical corners, to seek an advantage where there's some ambiguity -- and even where there's no ambiguity. The temptations to do whatever you can to get the small advantage that distinguishes No. 1 from No. 20 are almost overwhelming."

For coaches and players who succumb to that impulse, just remember: If you're going to cheat, don't go cheap on those in position to bury you.