Colleges, cut loose from big-time sports

As a long-time advocate of cleaning up college sports, you would think I'd be happy to read that a commission studying college athletics has concluded a "disgraceful environment" exists in college sports today and recommends what some observers call "tough" corrective measures.

The Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics proposes that college teams that fail to graduate 50 percent of their players not be allowed to compete for conference championships or post-season events, that commercial logos be removed from uniforms, that the length of playing seasons be reduced, and that athletes be treated as other students when considered for admission and academic support.

Good for the commission! But I'm not really cheering. Why? Because athletics on so many campuses just isn't fixable. The report gets it just right: "Sports as big business for colleges and universities is in direct conflict with nearly every value that should matter for higher education. In the year 2001, the big business of big-time sports all but swamps these values, making a mockery of those professing to uphold them."

But the commission's recommendations, though laudable, won't help solve the basic problem. Again, it seems unfixable. Colleges and big-time sports cannot live together without corrupting the academic environment.

The commission finally comes up with the only solution when it concludes: "If it proves impossible to create a system of intercollegiate athletics that can live honorably within the American college and university, then the nation's colleges and universities should get out of the business of big-time sports."

We've reached that point now. Yes, I say we have been corrupting our colleges and universities with big-time sports, which really has become big-time business. For many years, the presidents of institutions of higher learning should have been ending an almost unholy relationship, in which winning is requisite to reap financial benefits.

Colleges started on the road to big corruption back in the early 20th century, when some institutions would let good athletes who were poor students slide through school and stay eligible for playing. Back in the 1930s, I personally knew football players who received that kind of treatment.

Then came inducements from the colleges (the scholarships) and the money from alumni. Some of this in later years has been controlled or curbed by the NCAA. But a youngster can still get special breaks, both financially and academically, if he is athletically skilled, particularly in football or basketball.

Incidentally, according to the latest NCAA data, only 48 percent of major college football players and 34 percent of men's basketball players graduate even in six years. Now that's disgraceful! Here we obviously are seeing academic admission standards dip so that colleges can nab players for their teams. It is also obvious that these colleges are attracting a lot of players who are mainly, if not solely, interested in playing games in college and, they hope, doing well enough to carve out a professional career.

So I say to those academic leaders tied in with big sports programs: Cut cleanly. Half measures won't work. You fiddle around with half measures, and 100 years from now you still will be linked to this corruptive influence. Cut loose! It's the only way.

Here's one way to do it. That great football coach who developed Red Grange at the University of Illinois, Robert Zuppke, was one of those rare coaches who thought students should go to college to get an education and then, incidentally, go out for a team. To accomplish this, "Zup" came up with the idea of having only seniors playing on the teams that represented colleges in intercollegiate play. He saw these same athletically inclined students participating in intra-college competition up to that final year.

That idea was broached in 1939. It never got anywhere. I still wonder: Why not? Overnight it would turn, or begin to turn, the colleges back to college presidents and academic pursuits. And the air would smell sweeter on college campuses throughout America.

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