Cleaning up college sports: Tulane is at the forefront

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SUMMERTIME . . . and the livin' is easy along St. Charles Avenue, but there is distress for American athletics beneath the calm. The quaint trolley car that whirs unhurriedly down the sun-drenched boulevard toward Tulane University, where the pace of student life has slowed considerably since the spring term ended, delivers visitors to a hot spot of basketball controversy. After 73 varsity seasons, this university has dropped the sport. Jolted by a point-shaving scandal and recruiting infractions, Tulane jettisoned the basketball program rather than be dragged down by it. And a special committee of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) met here last week to assess and act on the kinds of problems affecting college sports, not only at Tulane, but throughout the United States. (See report on the NCAA actions on Page 20.)

The old brick gym at the heart of the campus looks especially deserted and forlorn. Inside, the entrances to the arena are shut tight, the hallways empty. The building is quiet, but not as disturbingly silent as it may be next winter without the men's basketball team.

Mindful of the tremendous strides his administration has made to revive the university, Dr. Eamon Kelly, its president, refused to make a wishy-washy decision.

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Ending the program sent out a clear message, Dr. Kelly told the Monitor during an interview in his large, stately office. ``We have been able to communicate to the Tulane community, New Orleans, and the country that these types of abuses should be and are unacceptable in an academic environment,'' said Dr. Kelly, who attended Fordham on a football scholarship and likes to swim before arriving at work. ``Anything that detracts from the integrity of the institution or its primary mission of teaching, learning, and research will not be tolerated.''

To hedge rather than make that tough choice would have diverted attention from this central issue of integrity, according to Charles Knapp, executive vice-president and the Tulane administration's chief sports contact. ``If we had either moved [down] to Division II or III or indefinitely suspended basketball, the message would have been lost,'' he said over an off-campus lunch. ``The whole debate would have focused on: When are you going to start up again? Who's going to be the coach? How are you going to get players? And who are you going to schedule.''

Dr. Kelly's bold move grew out of the sort of crisis other college presidents would just as soon avoid on their campuses. As a result, they are beginning to push for reform, as the NCAA convention made clear.

The impetus behind the meeting came from a 44-member Presidents Commission, which was formed to elicit the input of the association's college and university presidents in NCAA matters.

The time when big-time athletic programs could be left to run on automatic pilot is clearly over. Abuses are plentiful enough that people are beginning to wonder just how much dirt lies under the sports carpet. Enough for a soil laboratory, some imagine.

Not surprisingly, 6 of 10 Americans believe sports in college are overemphasized, according to a recent poll.

It's hard to build trust in the direction intercollegiate athletics have taken when:

The University of Florida fields a nationally powerful football team guilty of more than 70 infractions of NCAA rules.

North Carolina State admits a freshman basketball player with a 470 Scholastic Aptitude Test score (only 70 points above the lowest possible score and light-years below the 1,030 averaged by State's freshman class).

A strength coach at Vanderbilt is charged with illegally distributing muscle-building drugs to athletes.

Former pro star Willis Reed resigns as Creighton's basketball coach because he says he can't compete without cheating.

The biggest bombshell of all, of course, occurred at Tulane only a few months ago. The first story to break involved the alleged point shaving, which occurred when five players were accused of holding down their team's score to beat the established betting line. Three are cooperating with prosecutors, leaving star center John (Hot Rod) Williams and guard David Dominique to face sports bribery charges. Williams, who is now playing for the minor-league Rhode Island Gulls, would likely have been a million-dollar draft choice for a professional team if not for his reputed involvement in the Tulane mess.

As the result of investigations into point-shaving activity, a second story broke, indicating Williams had received $10,000 in a shoe box to enroll at the school and that some players were being paid by former head coach Ned Fowler, who was forced to resign. Such inducements are in violation of NCAA rules.

Only three years ago, repeated rule-breaking of this kind led the University of San Francisco to terminate its basketball program. This was a particularly shocking development to anyone who remembered the school's glory years in the sport, including back-to-back national championships in 1955 and '56. The school has decided to end its self-imposed basketball exile, though, by returning a team to competition next season.

Now that Dr. Kelly has decided to drop basketball at Tulane, observers have asked: Would he drop biology if a few students and professors acted unethically? ``The answer, of course,'' he says, ``is that the analogy does not hold, because biology, or any other duly constituted academic program at Tulane, is inseparable from Tulane's essential purpose. Basketball is not.''

Dr. Kelly has been able to act from a position of strength. Since his arrival in 1979, Tulane has stemmed a tide of institutional lethargy and put the university on a progressive course. The budget has been balanced, the endowment enlarged dramatically, and bigger, better-quality freshman classes recruited.

Still, Tulane has accepted students with lower academic qualifications if they were athletes. This is a common practice at most major schools and one followed more regularly at Tulane now as a means of strengthening the football team. Dr. Kelly, in fact, calls the discrepancies in this area, plus the commercialization of sports through TV income, the two central athletic problems facing college administrators.

This view is echoed when Mr. Knapp speaks of the ``tension that exists intensely at a place like Tulane, or Rice, or Vanderbilt. Our average entering freshman in arts and sciences next fall will probably have entering board scores between 1,125 and 1,150, but the NCAA talks about a 700 minimum.''

A compromise might not be necessary at all, except that Tulane has decided to maintain a major (Division I) football program. And to compete at that level means opening your doors to athletes, many black, who may not enjoy the desired educational background.

That's a situation Mack Brown faces. A dynamic 33-year-old, he is both the school's new head football coach and athletic director, a dual role his brother, Watson, performs at Rice.

Brown believes there's a place for the motivated, yet marginal student. ``His intelligence level may be very high, but perhaps he didn't get any direction at home or came out of an inferior school system. I think you have to give that young man a chance.'' Basically, Brown likes to use his instincts in assessing a football prospect, examining more than just his test scores and high school grades.

Most major colleges, of course, try to offer counseling and tutoring to scholarship athletes, and Tulane is no different. Athletic counselor Sharyn Orr stands ready to offer guidance, encouragement, and sometimes a firm push. That doesn't guarantee success, but overall, the administration is quite pleased with the results -- about a 90 percent graduation rate for student-athletes who play college sports for the maximum time NCAA rules permit (four years).

Still, Dr. Kelly points a finger at himself for what, in retrospect, he considers an underlying factor in basketball's demise. ``I think I focused rather heavily on the academic counseling and tutoring and was mistakenly insensitive to a need for societal type counseling.'' More should be done, he feels, to address topics such as media pressure, drug abuse, bribery, and gambling.

This is likely to come up in the discussions of a blue-ribbon committee, formed at Kelly's recommendation, to study the role of the athletics and academics at Tulane with the goal of achieving a consensus on where to go from here.

All this puts Tulane in the forefront of the growing movement pushing for athletic reforms. It is a position of sober responsibility, and one which, Knapp says, puts the school in the pulpit. 30{et

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