The sense of urgency was as thick as gumbo in New Orleans last week during a special convention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) called to clean up the college sports environment. In a sense, what happened was right out of an old Hollywood movie.
The reputation of college athletics lay strapped to the railroad tracks with the locomotive of negative public opinion bearing down on it.
But a rescue party of college presidents swept onto the scene to save the day, spearheading the passage of several major reforms.
The most striking of these were aimed at cracking down on schools that are guilty of ``major violations,'' that is, ones which provide an extensive recruiting or competitive advantage. Paying athletes, other than for room, board, etc., would be an example.
Past penalties were not stiff enough to discourage repeat violations, a fact that gave rise to what Walter Byers, executive director of the NCAA, has called ``the tyranny of the lowest common denominator.''
At a meeting of football writers earlier this year, Byers said that 10 to 15 percent of the major college members of the NCAA ``were deliberate violators, chronic violators, and another 10 to 15 percent turn their heads in the competitive rush of things. . . .''
The temptation to cheat, however, may have been seriously curtailed by the adoption of the so-called ``death penalty'' provisions at the NCAA's ``Integrity Convention.''
This get-tough measure will basically sideline programs guilty of major repeat offenses. A school committing major violations twice within a five-year period will not be able to compete, recruit, or offer scholarships for at least a year and up to two years.
This is no small matter, and the consequences could be felt long after the suspension ends. ``If you shut down a program for two years, you effectively shut it down for 10 years,'' Gene Corrigan, Notre Dame's athletic director, has said.
Based on the near unanimity of voting at the convention, though, it is clear that college officials want to go this direction.
Only a handful of schools out of more than 400 represented in New Orleans opposed the stiff punishments. Of course, some schools may have gone along with the crowd rather than risk being labeled black sheep in this push to cleanse the system.
Even 21 of 23 schools presently serving NCAA probations favored the measure, something of a surprise considering that another major infraction (committed after Sept. 1) would shut down the transgressing program.
Such shutdowns have long been considered the penalty of last resort since the cancellation of one school's playing schedule tends to penalize its opponents as well through lost revenue.
But many college presidents have become rather upset with all the talk about money and the win-at-all-costs mentality in intercollegiate sports these days. That's why a Presidents Commission was formed and brought into the NCAA decision-making process. The convention in New Orleans was essentially called at their request and to act on their initiatives.
Rules were also passed requiring:
Annual outside audits of athletic departments.
Approval of athletic budgets by a school's president.
Affirmation by coaches and athletes that they haved abided by NCAA rules and will continue to do so.
``This is only the first step by presidents,'' said Indiana University's John Ryan, chairman of the commission. ``We must apply ourselves to a continuing effort to eliminate corruption in intercollegiate athletics.''