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It's party time again in Miami.
Not on the yacht where booster Nevin Shapiro liked to take players, fat cats and assorted, er, guests. Not in the waterfront mansions or swanky nightclubs where Miami players were invited to unwind after a long day on the practice field.
But party they will in the hallways of University of Miami, where once again it's a good time to be in the business of college athletics.
A three-year dance with the NCAA is over, the football team is undefeated and ranked No. 7 in the nation, and visions of a big bowl game fill the air. All for a couple of paltry scholarships, the final payment for a decade of allowing the football and basketball programs to run amok.
"It's been a long haul," Miami President Donna Shalala told The Associated Press. "But I don't have any anger or frustration."
No reason for any of that, though a few fist pumps and a victory dance around campus might be in order. Yes, Miami sacrificed two bowl games and an Atlantic Coast Conference football title game to appease the NCAA, but Tuesday's announcement sparing the university from much further damage couldn't have been scripted better by the school itself.
That's partly because NCAA investigators bungled the case so badly from the beginning that Shalala finally put the organization on notice earlier this year that enough was enough. But it also shows the increasing irrelevance of the NCAA in big-time college athletics, where the money flows like Dom Perignon at one of Shapiro's parties and the large conferences are free to do pretty much anything they want to do.
The big schools and conferences don't mind keeping the NCAA around for window dressing to make it look as if college athletics are really for the kids and not the grown-ups. But try to really get tough — even in a case where most of the evidence was already laid out for them — and the fight begins.
So Miami loses a total of nine football scholarships over three years, and three in basketball. No big deal, just a couple of third-string linemen and an undersized shooting guard who would play in garbage minutes only.
This for allowing a booster — now serving a jail term for masterminding a $930 million Ponzi scheme — special access for at least seven years to athletic events and the players themselves. Shapiro donated or pledged some $500,000 to the university's athletic program and was such a big whale a student lounge was named after him. He also partied with players, and spent at least $170,000 on recruits, players and even coaches.
Miami supporters will argue that the university already punished itself enough by voluntarily giving up the postseason while the NCAA investigation was underway. Even so, the punishment pales in comparison to tough penalties — including the loss of 30 scholarships over three years — handed down at Southern California for benefits given to Reggie Bush by prospective agents.
"We have always felt that our penalties were too harsh," USC Athletic Director Pat Haden said in a statement. "This decision only bolsters that view."
In fairness to the NCAA, it has an impossible job. The organization is supposed to guard against abuses in college athletics and punish those who cross the line, but it has no subpoena power to investigate properly and often finds itself thwarted by the very institutions it allegedly governs. In doesn't help that in Miami's case the NCAA was so clueless that it had no idea a con man was operating for the better part of a decade, throwing money and gifts at athletes and administrators.
Indeed, unless players are seen accepting stacks of $100 bills on the 50-yard-line during halftime, there's not much reason for anyone to even worry about being caught. The lucrative dance between boosters, would-be agents and players continues around the country, just as it has for decades.
The NCAA is paralyzed by fear and indecision, incapable of governing the huge industry that is college athletics any more than it is of running the NFL. It has allowed the haves in football and basketball to permanently occupy a place where the have-nots are not welcome and can't even get a seat at the table when conferences chase after schools and television money.
Meanwhile, players are graduating without ever seeing the measly $2,000 a year they were supposed to get to allow them to buy a hamburger or take a date to the movies.
So let the party begin again in Miami. Feel good, if you will, about the kids in a football program who persevered through uncertain times and are now ready to reap the reward.
But it's hard to feel good about the unseemly mess that was Miami athletics or the equally messy way the NCAA went about trying to clean it up.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http:/twitter.com/timdahlberg