Welcome to football week on Tobacco Road Blues. New contributor Andrew Westney kicks us off…
“You took your first pinch like a man, and you learned the two greatest things in life… Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” – GoodFellas
Jimmy Conway’s credo is a little Yogi Berra-esque, in that it makes perfect sense if you don’t try to make too much sense out of it. The point is this, ya mook: don’t tell the cops anything, especially about your amici. As that picture amply illustrated, though, you don’t always know who your friends are, or worse, sometimes the guys you thought were your friends will run out at the first sign of trouble. But even then, a lot of people would rather go down with the ship than ever turn rat.
Good thing for journalists and dramatists, then, that a few individuals, with their heads screwed on a special way, choose to violate this code. Because the best corruption tales beg for a rat: sure, intrepid reporters can break a scandal based on dogged review of documents and endless interviews with peripheral parties, but nothing drags the tarp off the cesspool like an insider naming names, taking no prisoners amongst those who until yesterday were his pals.
This season’s superfink: Nevin Shapiro, convicted con man, financial fraud mastermind, trumpeted his role as an excessive enthusiast for the Miami Hurricanes football and (to a lesser degree) basketball teams, treating as many as 72 players over eight years to all the booze, hookers, and yachting they could handle.
For those who haven’t been following (and goggling) along at home, the Yahoo Sports article by Charles Robinson breaking the story last Tuesday describes Shapiro appropriating money from a “fraudulent grocery distribution business” to fund his lavish, lascivious lifestyle as an official Hurricane team booster. Evidently, there’s over $900 million worth of people who think there’s such a thing as a real grocery distribution business that returns 26 percent a year on investment.
The SEC’s summary of its April 2010 complaint against Shapiro pleasingly labels him a “grocery diverter”, which sounds like he’s lifting milk and eggs out of their humdrum lives with magic tricks, but is actually a legitimate if sketchy-seeming profession involving selling expiring food from one area to another locale not as fussy about that kind of thing. In time, the market in second-hand organic matter came to fall short of the returns possible in the market of making stuff the fuck up: from January 2005 on, the “business” was almost purely a Ponzi scheme. By the time the law finally caught up to him, his talents had taken South Beach to the tune of $930 million.
Nevin Shapiro was a little guy with a big ego and ambition to match- he wanted not just to roll with the stars at Miami but to be their patron. Though just 5’5’’ and with (almost) the same first name as The Jerk (his middle initial’s “K”, not “R”, but bless your brain if you needed to know), he spent large, including hefty donations to the school and the football and basketball programs. The nickname the players gave him captured his stature: “Li’l Luke”, derived and diminished from Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell, Shapiro’s predecessor at Miami as founder of the feast. More suitable now (to swipe the sobriquet of MMA fighter Jens Pulver) might be “Li’l Evil”- like his fellow snake oil salesman and crusher of lives Bernie Madoff, he thrived high on the hog spending stolen cash right up until the moment he turned himself over to the Feds, owing investors over $82 million.
You wouldn’t think, then, that Shapiro would have room to accuse Lucifer of disloyalty. But you’d be underestimating both his gall and his sense of outrage. The Miami players whose partying he subsidized (cost of attendance + cost of decadence = about $2 million over 8 years, by his estimate) were his friends, his “boys”, or so he thought. So when none of them sprang or slinked forward to help Shapiro after he turned himself in, they became the traitors. And Remy Martin the Rat started looking for a way to bring this fact forcibly to their attention. “The two greatest things in life” added up to significantly less than the chance to score massive payback.
A follow-up story on Friday by Yahoo reporter Dylan Stableford detailed how Robinson got the jump on Shapiro’s revelations. How Yahoo Cutline managed to get the inside story on Yahoo Sports’ inside story no one can say for sure, but it probably finished a distant second in the Most Strenuous Investigation competition at Yahoo last week. Initially, according to the Stableford article, Shapiro planned to write a bombshell book provisionally titled The Real U: 2001 to 2010. Inside the Eye of the Hurricane. Not bad, but tighten that up a bit to Convict vs Convicts and you’ve got a bestseller. However, perhaps finding fact-checking uncongenial (checking the facts is typically something Shapiro would do at the door), he decided to forego writing his own story and spill to Robinson. If nothing else, journalism is a more social solution to the need to poison those who’ve abandoned you.
The death penalty may be on the table for Miami, but scholasto-athletic reform does not appear to be, shall we say, Shapiro’s top priority. As yet another related Yahoo article by Dan Wetzel puts it, “[Shapiro] wants to inflict pain any way he can.” Wetzel’s vivid beast-at-bay portrait of the jailed Shapiro makes clear that he’s consigned to a lonely hell of his own making, and this is his desperate attempt to bust out.
The main Yahoo story emerged from righteous, vintage reportage, responsible and thorough (not to mention hacking-free!), yet full of lip-smacking detail. After many months of phone calls, interviews, studying documents, etc., Robinson finally released this staggering account of epic misbehavior. Although the article’s admirably researched, supported and written, at one point the prose does get a little awkward in the presence of sex workers, noting that “Shapiro’s $1.6 million yacht was also available…for fishing trips, leisure trips and lodging for the availability of prostitution.” Never a good idea: everyone knows the availability of prostitution scares away the fish.
On the other hand, Wetzel’s story embraces the debauchery, thrilling to the “wild, hooker-fueled parties” Shapiro hosted. Hookers as fuel might be a slightly ambitious image for the occasion- “alcohol-ignited”, sure; “cocaine-stoked”, by all means; but even Caligula balked at using prostitutes as incendiary devices (although admittedly, on party nights in the palace he was known to strap a festive Roman candle to his favorite horse’s cock).
In fairness, the truth is plenty lurid. This Miami Confidential was very not hush-hush. Said Shapiro of Miami’s disinterest in what was going on, “Actually, you didn’t even need to follow me. You could have just followed my bodyguards, who were taking kids home because they were too drunk to drive at the end of our nights.” Actually, it sounds like you could throw a rock in any direction on Miami Beach any given Sunday morning and clock a comatose player.
The evidence amassed by Yahoo looked daunting- was it true? Rapid backlash came Shapiro’s way, but although a lot of people have been calling him a criminal, a wannabe, a “rapist” (per Michael Irvin- and it’s obviously not a word Irvin would bandy about lightly, having been accused (and cleared) of sexual assault a couple of times himself), not enough folks really are calling him a liar considering how tempting and credible that would be to say of a felon con artist.
Several Miami players from the period have already been interviewed, and the prevailing theme with older players was how long (eight, nine years- i.e., an eon) it’d been since the alleged activities might have happened, while amongst more recent players the prevailing theme was silence; not too many are trying the line that this stuff didn’t happen. Yet Shapiro’s shenanigans went forward enjoying the ignorance, and possibly the complicity, of Miami staff, even after Shapiro helped start a sports agency representing some former Miami players. If that didn’t get Miami to shut Shapiro down, who knows how much longer it all could’ve stayed a secret if he hadn’t gone to town with this story?
While the agency angle sparked Yahoo’s interest, without Shapiro’s cooperation the story and scandal wouldn’t have burgeoned to anywhere near this size. “It began as most scandalous exposes do: with a tip,” Stableford observes, but there’s so much systemic (Miami, NCAA) traction against bad news that to overcome it you really require a Deep Throat with an obsession to subvert that system. Starting with a tip is all very well, but without the inside voice, the would-be disaster story could end up all tips and no iceberg.
So what qualities make for a likely rat? The necessary traits seem to be that obsession, plus a willingness, even avidity, to be ostracized. It’s not easy to find someone with the personal makeup- the guts or the shamelessness, the strong moral fiber or complete lack thereof- that lets these traits flourish. Shapiro fits and updates the latter profile. For the heroic incarnation of the rat, we’re going to have to go old-school, and to the flip side of the law.
Shapiro vs. Serpico, Part Two: It Ain’t Paranoia If You Get Shot in the Face
Andrew Westney writes about sports and business, and lives uphill on Tobacco Road.