How Yahoo! Sports broke the Univ. of Miami college football story

Even if you're not a sports fan, you've probably heard the explosive news this week that Nevin Shapiro, the University of Miami booster jailed for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, told Yahoo! Sports he provided millions of dollars in impermissible benefits to at least 72 of the school's athletes from 2002 through 2010.

Yahoo reporter Charles Robinson conducted more than 100 hours of jailhouse interviews during his 11-month investigation into Shapiro's allegations. Shapiro told him among the benefits he made available to Miami players were "cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion."

CNN said it "could be the biggest scandal in the history of college sports."

"If the assertions are true," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement, "the alleged conduct at the University of Miami is an illustration of the need for serious and fundamental change in many critical aspects of college sports." Emmert confirmed that the NCAA had been conducting its own investigation of the Miami program for months.

It's an endlessly fascinating story--and the saga of how Robinson broke the story is fascinating, too.

It began as most scandalous exposes do: with a tip.

"We heard a tip that Shapiro was about to go jail, that he was close to a number of Miami players, and had this sports agency," Robinson told The Cutline.

That agency, Axcess Sports, gave Robinson a "thumbnail" to start digging through Florida state business records.

"That's when the tip got traction," he said.

But Shapiro, incarcerated in a New Jersey prison, was already talking to other news outlets. In August, he told the Miami Herald that he planned to write a tell-all book (working title: The Real U: 2001 to 2010. Inside the Eye of the Hurricane) promising to divulge information on more than 100 athletes who broke NCAA rules. "I want to make the average fan aware of what really exists under that uniform,'' he said. "They might be great players, but they're certainly not great people."

After the Herald story came out, Robinson attempted to reach out to Shapiro through his attorney, but was rebuffed a few times. In November, while in Miami working on a different story, Robinson showed up at the office of Shapiro's attorney, Maria Elena Perez. "I told her, 'We're going to be writing about it regardless, with or without Nevin,' " Robinson said. "But would love to have his cooperation."

But Yahoo! and Robinson weren't the only ones vying for Shapiro's cooperation. ESPN's Kelly Naqi and HBO's "Real Sports" were in preliminary discussions with Shapiro and his attorney, and both told Shapiro they were willing to put him on TV, according to Robinson.

Soon after their meeting, Perez got Robinson on the phone with Shapiro.

"I told him what I knew about him and his agency, and it was up to him to decide, but that we'd do the story with or without him," Robinson said. "I gave him a day to think about it." He called the next day, ready to talk.

"Charles did a better job than anyone who came my way, that's why we gave him the story," Perez told CNN.

Robinson said Shapiro told him later he went with Yahoo! over ESPN and HBO because Yahoo! Sports had already done the legwork. "No one else had known about his agency," Robinson said.

It didn't hurt that Robinson, a seven-year Yahoo! veteran, had a record of breaking national stories, including exposing impropriety at the University of Southern California that resulted in the stripping of the Trojans' 2005 national title, and led Reggie Bush to return his Heisman Trophy.

Since December, Robinson said he made five trips to New Jersey, and 15 visits to Shapiro in jail.

While Robinson found Shapiro to be a "mixed bag as a human being," he also said that the convicted Ponzi-schemer proved, improbably enough, "a credible individual."

The fact checking of Shapiro's tale, as far as sports stories go, was airtight. The Yahoo! Sports investigative unit—which includes Robinson and three other staffers "audited approximately 20,000 pages of financial and business records from his bankruptcy case, more than 5,000 pages of cell phone records, multiple interview summaries tied to his federal Ponzi case, and more than 1,000 photos. Nearly 100 interviews were also conducted with individuals living in six different states. In the process, documents, photos and 21 human sources--including nine former Miami players or recruits, and one former coach--corroborated multiple parts of Shapiro's rule-breaking."

Still, there was some fear at Yahoo! that the story could leak out prematurely. "There was some nervousness about that," Robinson said. "We limited it internally to very selected staff members," and did not disclose travel schedules that might tip off competing news organizations.

The story leaked anyway, on Sunday night, but by then, the early release of Shapiro's sensational disclosures only seemed to heighten public interest. Along with millions of page views, it's generated 53,000 Facebook shares and 5,000-plus tweets since posting.

And while it was clear he had something, Robinson said he didn't expect story would make as big a splash as it has. "I was surprised," he said. "I think when you're so close to something for so long you become desensitized. After eight months of reading the same thing you tend to get numb to what the impact of it might be."

Robinson plans to continue to develop news on Miami. But he also plans to return to stories he had to shelve during the 11-month investigation. "I have to get back day job," he joked.

After all that was uncovered, does Robinson think the university should receive the dreaded "death penalty"?

"It's dangerous to speculate," he said. "As long as the truth is exposed, I like to step back, and let the university and the NCAA sort it out."