Hurricanes checking eligibility of 15 athletes

Published 12:35 am Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Associated Press

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The probe into Miami athletics is growing, with the university looking into the eligibility of 15 athletes who may have accepted improper benefits from a rogue booster.

Miami President Donna Shalala did not reveal any names of the players under investigation as she released a video statement Monday. The booster, convicted Ponzi scheme architect Nevin Shapiro, told Yahoo Sports for an article published last week that 12 current football players and one men’s basketball player got money, gifts and other items from him.

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“We cannot let the actions of some define the many,” Shalala said.

The football players who were named by Shapiro in interviews with Yahoo Sports are Jacory Harris, Vaughn Telemaque, Ray Ray Armstrong, Travis Benjamin, Aldarius Johnson, Marcus Forston, Olivier Vernon, Marcus Robinson, Adewale Ojomo, Dyron Dye, JoJo Nicholas and Sean Spence. Shapiro also alleged to Yahoo Sports that he paid $10,000 to ensure that basketball player DeQuan Jones signed with the Hurricanes.

Most, if not all, the current football players Shapiro named would likely be major contributors if they get to take the field.

Citing the ongoing investigation, school officials would not say Monday if any of those players have been cleared to play, or who the additional names linked to the investigation are.

“The Miami athletic compliance staff, in a joint effort with the NCAA, is now beginning the process of reviewing the eligibility of 15 current student-athletes,” Shalala said. “With the season fast approaching I know our players, coaches and fans are eager to know the results. The process, however, must be deliberate and thorough to ensure its integrity.”

The university wants to decide the status of the football players by the end of this week. Football coach Al Golden is planning to release a depth chart in the coming days for the Sept. 5 opener at Maryland, a process that would become very difficult if players like Harris, Spence, Forston, Telemaque, Armstrong and Benjamin — some of the team’s on-field leaders — are ineligible.

“We will move forward,” Golden said Saturday.

If Miami uses any player later deemed ineligible by the NCAA, then the Hurricanes run the risk of having to retroactively vacate games. If the Hurricanes sit the players implicated in the scandal, then their chances of winning now figure to take a serious hit.

Miami’s football team held a closed scrimmage Monday, which Golden said would be the final audition of sorts for players trying to make the 60-person travel roster to Maryland.

Golden and other members of the football program will be unavailable for comment until Thursday, school officials said. In videotaped comments released by the university after the scrimmage, Golden indicated the depth chart could be completed Wednesday.

“We have a lot of decisions to make over the next 48 hours, not just the quarterbacks but the travel squad and the two-deep,” Golden said after the scrimmage. He did not address anything related to the NCAA investigation, and said his staff would begin putting a game plan together for the Maryland trip Tuesday morning.

For much of the past few days, Shalala has tried to keep some sense of normalcy.

Miami’s freshman class arrived on campus last week, and Shalala mingled with many of them at a women’s soccer game Friday night. On Sunday, she hosted a picnic at her home for new students, although she also met with senior staff throughout the weekend about the status of the investigation. Some football players popped into another women’s soccer game Sunday night, getting words of encouragement from some longtime Miami supporters.

“The past eight days have been difficult. … However, I’m heartened by the kind of displays of support in recent days, phone calls, text messages, emails and letters from so many of you,” Shalala said. “When our values are called into question, as they have been this past week, we have only one option: Do what is right and have the confidence in tomorrow. We will not let others define us.”

Five months ago, NCAA officials began investigating claims that Shapiro, who is now serving a 20-year prison sentence for masterminding a $930 million scam, provided 72 football players — 65 of whom suited up for the Hurricanes — with cars, money, gifts and even prostitutes between 2002 and 2010. Shapiro’s claims also implicate 10 Miami football and basketball coaches, none of whom are still employed by the university.

Shalala says Miami has retained attorneys who specialize in NCAA investigations to assist with the process.

“We have been open and cooperative with investigators,” Shalala said.

Shalala has not been available for interviews, outside of one given last week to Miami’s student newspaper. Her video message lasted just a bit under 6 minutes.

“The NCAA has instructed us not to comment on specific details of the investigation,” Shalala said. “It’s frustrating for us — for me — to be unable to speak more freely or to answer questions. However we must protect the integrity of the investigation and have patience as the work proceeds.”

Miami has joined a growing list of schools with major football programs to be investigated by the NCAA for rule-breaking in the past 18 months. Others include Southern California, Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and LSU.

Federal officials said Shapiro, 42, remained imprisoned Monday at a facility in Tallahassee, Fla. His attorney has said Shapiro is in the process of being transferred to another prison, possibly one in South Florida, and that his transit is expected to be completed within days.