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A Plan For Cleaning Up College Sports


The revelations of wrongdoing in the Southwest Conference came less than three months after a high-powered collection of university presidents enacted harsh new penalties for misdeeds in college sports at a special NCAA convention in New Orleans. The university bosses were thus acknowledging the pattern of shocking abuses that has called into question big-time college sports' very reason for existence. A powerhouse athletic program builds student esprit, doesn't it? Not when fat-cat non-students grab up all the good seats. It supports minor sports, right? On the contrary, as the revenue sports—football and basketball—get ever bigger, many colleges have been dropping teams in wrestling, gymnastics, swimming and other minor sports. Well, doesn't college sports build character? What it builds, too often, is a willingness to cut classes and accept payola from boosters. O.K., but surely it creates goodwill for Old Siwash? College sports do generate favorable publicity and dollars from boosters, but in most cases only if the school wins. And pressures to win lead to cheating, which creates more embarrassment than goodwill. How much goodwill are TCU, Texas A & M and SMU reaping from the current headlines? As they contemplate new reforms, the presidents seem just as interested, perhaps more so, in attacking financial abuses as academic ones. But the academic side is clearly the place to begin any cleanup. After all, in bending their academic standards, schools are sending signals to athletes that it's all right to cheat—e.g., by accepting illicit payments from boosters. Next week the 44-member NCAA Presidents' Commission will meet in Denver to consider reform measures for introduction at next January's regular NCAA convention. To underscore the importance of such efforts, SI has devised a 10-point program for cleaning up the mess in college sports. Nine of our proposals are within the NCAA's jurisdiction; the 10th would be up to Washington:

One of the biggest scandals in college sports is the number of "exceptions" that admissions directors make for athletes who don't meet normal entrance requirements. Some of these exceptions occur in affirmative action-type programs under which students from disadvantaged backgrounds can be admitted because of special talents or latent academic promise. At some schools 60% or more of all special admissions are jocks. Our proposal is to tie the number of "exceptions" for athletes to the percentage of athletes in the student body as a whole. A one-to-two ratio should do the trick: that is, if athletes make up, say, 3% of a school's enrollment, they should account for no more than 6% of special admissions and other exceptions. This would be preferable to controversial Proposal 48, which was enacted by the NCAA in 1983 and is scheduled to take effect next August. Proposal 48 holds that entering college athletes must achieve a specified minimum score on standardized national tests, thus imposing the same absolute admission standards on lesser schools as on Harvard, an obvious absurdity. Limiting special admissions would help assure that athletes are treated the same as nonathletes entering the same institution.

While some freshmen can handle the simultaneous pressures of sports and school, many others can't. It's important to make clear to all entering students what the priorities are. The NCAA should abolish freshman eligibility and permit only lower-profile freshman teams that demand fewer hours and create fewer pressures. This would allow freshmen to become part of the campus community and get a grip on what it takes to succeed in the classroom.

Student-athletes must become just that. Loading up on bogus courses must not be allowed. At every stage athletes must meet grade-point and curriculum requirements that lead toward graduation. The NCAA now has rules governing only total credits, without regard for grades. The only curriculum requirement is that athletes declare a major by their junior year.

The number of games that can be played in various sports should be reduced. Some college football teams now start their seasons well before the student body returns to campus. Football spring practice should be dropped. In-season demands on athletes' time must be sharply reduced. Practice, chalk talks, weight training, film sessions, media interviews, travel to and from games and all the other things that monopolize athletes' lives leave precious little time or energy for study. The athletic calendar must be subordinate to the academic calendar.

Athletic scholarships used to be awarded on a four-year basis and could be taken away only if the recipient quit the team. But coaches sometimes "ran off" players who were slowed by injury or who otherwise lost their usefulness; that is, the coaches put pressure on them to quit so their scholarships could be offered to the newest crop of hotshots. In 1973 the NCAA made scholarships renewable year to year. At the end of a season coaches now can run off players even easier than before. Scholarships should be awarded to athletes for four years, with no strings attached: An athlete could keep his scholarship no matter how much or how little he plays. Moreover, if he stays with the team for three seasons, the scholarship should become a five-year deal. The purpose of all this generosity is, again, to put the emphasis on education. Now and then somebody would no doubt finagle a free ride, then quit the team his freshman year, but that is a risk worth taking. The current setup is simply too loaded against the athlete, who receives a year-to-year commitment but is asked to make a four-year commitment in return; if he transfers to another school, he is penalized by having to sit out a whole year. He is stuck even if his coach for any reason leaves. In such a case, he should be able to transfer immediately, without losing any eligibility.

Nothing will give a coach academic religion faster than this one. A school gets its full number of free rides only if the graduation rate for athletes approximates that of the regular student body. The further a team's graduation rate falls below the campus-wide rate, the more scholarships it forfeits the following year.

Dorms exclusively for jocks encourage them to study playbooks instead of textbooks. They also isolate the athletes from the rest of the college community. And they reek of privilege. Liberate Bryant Hall!

Anabolic steroids can be hazardous to the health, they're taken by athletes to get an unfair advantage over opponents (or to keep pace with opponents who are trying to gain such advantage), and their use is widespread in college sports. The NCAA should outlaw them.

Some critics of college sports, striving for simon-pure amateurism, call for banning athletic scholarships. Other reformers advocate an open market in which college athletes could sell themselves to the highest bidders. A middle ground between these two extremes is best. The sole payment made to college athletes should be their scholarships, which under SI's package of proposals would become far more valuable because they would finally offer the promise of a true education. Rewarding players with cars, cash and a cushy job for Uncle Al should still be taboo. But athletes should be free to take jobs during the school year just as recipients of academic scholarships are. And Mickey Mouse rules ought to be repealed. Prohibitions against giving a recruit a T shirt or a lift in a car are trivial and impossible to enforce. True, coaches try to use these things to win recruiting advantages. But it's hard to believe anybody would actually be influenced in his choice of an institution of higher learning by a free T shirt.

By helping to train athletes' sights on the value of getting an education, the preceding proposals would, it is hoped, make it less tempting for them to grab illicit here-and-now rewards, such as under-the-table payments from boosters. As a last resort, however, federal legislation to curb such practices may be needed. Nobody wants governmental involvement in sports, but discouraging misguided adults from corrupting high school and college athletes by giving them money, make-believe jobs and other inducements in violation of NCAA rules is in the public interest. Free-spending boosters have gotten athletes suspended and schools put on probation, but they go unscathed because they're not violating any laws. That may have to change.

And, oh, yes, let's make more and better seats for games available to students. (Just in case you thought we forgot.) This might cost colleges some money, as would the elimination of freshman eligibility and the guaranteeing of scholarships. But it's a rule of life that you usually have to pay to get something in return. Especially something as valuable as esprit, character and goodwill.